MarketingAutomotiveScion, Volt, Zipcar Woo Next-Gen Auto Customers

Scion, Volt, Zipcar Woo Next-Gen Auto Customers

If driving around in a nice car isn't what it used to be, then auto marketing needs to take a sharp turn.

[This is the last in a three-part series. Read part one. Read part two.]

scion-iq2If driving around in a nice car isn’t what it used to be, then auto marketing needs to take a sharp turn. Are brands selling sex appeal or functionality? Do drivers want to spark envy – or join a community? We found answers in the digital campaigns of three pioneers: GM’s electric hybrid Volt, Zipcar’s ride-sharing service, and Gen Y’s darling, the Scion.

Scion iQ Goes Wacky

Toyota’s Scion line tops the list of most popular autos among the under-30 set, per a recent study.

It’s latest entry, the mini-sized Scion iQ, is expanding beyond Scion’s typical viral marketing strategy into TV and online video. TV ads, launched in November 2011, introduce the car with a grand unveiling that reveals that two cars fit in the space of a regular sedan. Other light-hearted spots tout the car’s narrow turning radius and 11 airbags with the tagline, “I am going to be big.”

But the car’s real personality comes out in a series of comic online spots that debut in early 2012. According to Jack Hollis, Scion VP, the iQ is for new urbanites who want clever transportation with style or new features.” In that vein, the online work is different than anything the brand has done before.

scion-iqOne spot shows a bikini-clad driver wildly spinning circles while her passengers — a cop, biker and beach dude – try unsuccessfully to eat donuts and milk. The antics happen in the parking lot of Los Angeles landmark Randy’s Donuts, famous for its giant donut sign. Spinning donuts, get it? The riders are actors, but the action was unscripted, says a Scion rep. Other 15-second online spots focus on the iQ’s parking abilities. One shows a dignified Barack Obama lookalike and his three Secret Service officers as they pile out of the iQ as though it were a clown car.

In September 2011, the iQ also launched “Build Your Scion” at the website. Users can configure a vehicle including paint color and accessories with a real-time visual display of the configured vehicle. The price and payments are automatically updated based on the configuration. Users can save three configurations, compare them against each other and share them with friends.

Priced at about $16,000, Scion iQ is only available in West Coast dealerships. It will roll out in the rest of the country between January and March 2012.

The Volt: New Lesson Plan

The Chevrolet Volt, General Motor’s electric and gasoline hybrid, learned that consumers care more about how the car works, than how cheap it is to operate. The result: a bigger role for digital marketing. The $40,000 plug-in car gets about 40 miles on a single charge and then reverts to gasoline to run the engine. It is designed for short jaunts around town and for commuters with a plug-in station at work.

A mix of inspirational and humorous TV ads from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners began at the 2010 World Series and were included in the 2011 Super Bowl. The theme: “It’s more car than electric.”

But a few months later GM execs acknowledged the car was confusing to people. Marketing needed to explain “how the Volt differs from all-electric cars and hybrids,” said Joel Ewanick, GM’s marketing VP. One problem, for instance, is that although the car uses both electric power and gas, the company won’t call it a “hybrid.”

By May 2011, the campaign was leaning heavily on consumer-to-consumer communications. Early Volt buyers received a pocket-sized video camera and note encouraging them to shoot videos of their first experiences with the car and upload them onto the Volt site, In a touch of irony, the company also featured Alexandra Paul, the actress who appeared in the anti-GM documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car,” in a branded online video asking Volt owners to submit videos to create a video-based Volt users’ guide by users.

The community fostered by the site and the brand’s Facebook page (with about 130,000 fans) moved offline in August 2011 when Volt owners paraded about 60 of their cars in a “homecoming” parade in Detroit. The online community was also used for crisis management in late November 2011, when the car’s battery caught fire during intensive crash tests, prompting an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Chevy hosted an hour-long Facebook session to discuss the Volt with fans. By press time only about two dozen owners had accepted the carmakers buyback offer. So far, about 6,000 Volts have been sold in the U.S.

Zipcar: A Horde of Zipsters

Zipcar says it selling car-sharing, not car-renting. Customers pay monthly dues to rent the cars and are called hipsters, er, zipsters. Social media and local events shape the 11-year-old company’s marketing. Zipcar has about 68,000 likes on Facebook (about half the number of Volt) and members are encouraged to reserve cars via Facebook . A popular activity among Facebook fans is sharing pictures from road trips they’ve taken in a Zipcar.

On Twitter the company has about 11,000 followers, including many Twitter employees since Twitter–the-company is a Zipcar corporate client. The main Twitter account offers a list of local accounts so people can keep track of marketing events in their cities. Another Twitter list organizes member tweets, making it easier for social Zipcar loyalists to tweet each other.

The car service also uses social media to woo users with contests, charity fundraisers and crowdsourced projects. They spread the word about real-life promos, such as the Zipcar Mini Cooper covered with candy canes in a Boston shopping mall.

Irreverent display ads also generate online buzz – but not always intentionally. In September 2011, as part of its “Sometimes You Just Need a Car” online campaign, Zipcar showed people on bicycles awkwardly carrying oversized items in their arms. Cyclists went online to protest that bike bags and baskets serve that purpose. Some posted sarcastic, pro-bike alternative ads.

Another buzz-builder was the company’s partnership with Ford in September 2011, which put 1,000 Ford Focus compacts in rental fleets on 250 U.S. campuses. Ford discounted the rentals to $7.50 an hour instead of Zipcar’s usual $8.50 (including fuel and insurance). And the first 100,000 new Zipcar college members paid $20 for annual membership instead of $30. “It drives marketing buzz because students like to think they are getting a deal,” said Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith when the partnership was announced. Zipcar has 605,000 members and about 9,000 vehicles, most in the U.S. College rentals are about 10 percent of its business.

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