Automotive Takes Web Technology to New Creative Heights

A picturesque landscape with winding roads, deserted save for a silent, speeding car. Happy customers whistle and twirl their new keys as they leave a seasonal sales event. This is the type of advertising we’ve always expected from automotive marketers. It’s not particularly riveting, but it gets the point across.

Thankfully, so do the countless more creative examples of auto advertising launched online in recent years. Manufacturers are enticing and engaging consumers by creating interactive online experiences using technology like avatars, interactive video, and online games. We may not have expected it from an industry long known for a sometimes stodgy outlook on marketing, but automakers are taking Internet technology to new creative heights.

The most recent example of interactive online entertainment arrived last month, courtesy of Ford Focus. The brand launched a Theme Song-A-Tron microsite designed to help consumers express their inner rock star, ’80s pop queen, or disco icon by matching them up with a theme song (ideal for listening to while driving, of course). Users can upload their photo, choose a look from among several wardrobe, hair, and facial feature options, and ask the interactive tool to select a tune for their customized avatar based on their selections.

Also playing on familiar cultural themes (think “Deliverance,” only a lot funnier), Jeep invited Internet users last year to take a backwoods ride in the all-new Jeep Patriot by way of interactive video microsite. Just how the “Jeep Patriot & the Way Beyond Trail” story ended was up to the user, who could manipulate the plotline by determining the next scene from among 44 overall options.

Toyota’s Scion brand also had some fun with its “Little Deviant” campaign to promote the new Scion xD. A microsite and series of online games invited consumers to destroy conformists in a fairly graphic fashion, all in the name of highlighting the self-professed unconventional vehicle. Once in a while you’ll still notice a wrapped bus or other offline ad featuring those trademark deviants, placed as if to remind us of the risks Scion took with its odious, yet unforgettable, experiential microsite.

What do these efforts have in common? They all used the online medium as a central hub for brand-related activity (something, incidentally, it’s well-suited for). Technology is employed for fun as much as for function, and therefore can tell the brand story in a more imaginative and less overt way.

This universal objective isn’t always achieved. Marketers often push too hard to incorporate their product into every aspect of a creative online initiative, fearing they won’t attain their target ROI (define) without a heavy-handed branding approach. This perspective doesn’t give enough credit to Internet users. If you can provide them with a unique, exciting, and entertaining online experience, they won’t overlook the company behind it — even if flashing arrows aren’t surrounding your product on every page.

The most successful initiatives, regardless of product category or industry, demonstrate incredible restraint. They dig deep to classify the key characteristics of the brand’s soul — the things the brand most wants consumers to identify with — and translate them into a rich activity that lends itself to online participation.

The bottom line is still sales, of course, so most interactive Web experiences still link to product and purchase information. By making this secondary to the interactive content, though, visits to these sections are typically more qualified. And because the main priority is to entertain, and the entertainment is thematically tied to the brand, marketers are also likely to attract “new to brand” consumers who will come for the pleasure, but stay for the pitch.

If you haven’t been looking to automotive marketers for advertising inspiration, set aside those preconceived clichés and start combine the trades. Where interactive online experiences are concerned, this industry gets it. Does yours?

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