Online Automotive Ads: Drivers Wanted

One might not logically consider the Internet an attractive marketing medium for automotive manufacturers. Unlike books, clothing, airline tickets, or vacation packages, cars don’t represent a typical online purchase.

Sure, second-hand vehicles account for countless consumer transactions at online automotive marketplaces such as eBay Motors. Some dealerships have even taken steps to encourage potential customers to buy online. But unlike marketers whose job is to promote those services, manufactures consider the Internet a means to an offline end. Their objective for virtually all forms of advertising is to develop brand awareness and positive brand association and, more important, to lure consumers into dealership showrooms for a test drive and subsequent offline purchase.

That focus has produced some remarkable Web initiatives, including a recent campaign certain to make its way into the annals of interactive advertising history.

Likely the most familiar online marketing initiative developed by an automotive manufacturer is BMW’s collection of short films, produced by and housed at That campaign had it all: originality, brand value, and an effective viral marketing element.

It isn’t the only effort worthy of recognition. For example, last summer Volvo Cars of North America used the Internet as it’s chief marketing medium for the launch of its S60 sedan. It promoted the model almost entirely online. DaimlerChrysler has a collection of online games for its Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep brands, which it promotes on Yahoo Games. The quality rivals the greatest console racing games.

And Mitsubishi Motors North America just launched a Web-only promotional campaign to promote a decidedly offline, eight-week test drive event.

Mitsubishi is counting on the Net to deliver impressive results for its new “Feel What Happens” campaign. Designed to drive online sign-ups for comparison test drives and, ultimately, to generate business for Mitsubishi’s U.S. dealers, the initiative will be promoted on Mitsubishi’s consumer site as well as through targeted email campaigns. It’s the company’s attempt to provide the potential car buyer with the kind of visual, visceral experience that sells cars like no TV or online visual, however impressive and exhilarating, can.

Mitsubishi has a good track record for this kind of endeavor. The first campaign in this series, “See What Happens,” which was a Web/TV venture (remember the cliffhanger ad that aired during the 2004 Super Bowl?), produced 31 million online visits. It also drove over 8 million unique users to its associated site. It continues to be hailed as a huge success by the automotive industry and advertising analysts alike.

Like a handful of other particularly informed automotive manufacturers, Mitsubishi knows the Internet has some distinct advantages over other marketing media. It provides an ideal opportunity not only to reach the affluent, educated consumers who are attracted to its products but also to get in front of them while they’re in the process of researching buys.

According to a DoubleClick study released last year, the Internet (including online marketing, advertising, and email) was listed by consumers as a “top-three influence” in further learning and purchase decision stages where product categories such as automotive were concerned. Unsurprisingly, salespeople were listed as the number one source for automotive information, further substantiating manufacturers’ approach to using the Web to drive business offline.

There may not be a formula for successfully marketing cars via the Internet. From films and online videos to interactive games, virtually every kind of initiative has succeeded. The common thread running through all of them is the purpose of driving Internet users to their friendly neighborhood dealerships. It’s here consumers really interact with the brands and form educated opinions of products offered by the same manufacturers that woo them online. In the words of one passionate automotive salesman, and recent new car buyer, “Nothing can replace the sound of the tires squealing or the sensation of the wind in your face that you get during a test drive.”

The Web is the vehicle for getting consumers into those cars. Auto manufacturers are embracing it full force.

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