Don’t just show it to me, make me want it

When I used to commute to work (before waking up and moving downtown), I used to pass the time predicting drivers' behaviour based on the cars they drove.

When I used to commute to work (before waking up and moving downtown), I used to pass the time predicting drivers’ behaviour based on the cars they drove.

Red Pontiac Sunfires, I soon discovered, sped up rather than let you change lanes in front of them, while silver Volvos graciously waved you in. Beemers were impatient, but basically sensible, while Ford Expeditions (especially those with a rack of searchlights on top) tailgated dangerously.

Even the insurance companies, I hear, charge different premiums based on the model you buy, in part because it’s an indicator of what kind of driver you are.

What I’m trying to say is what everyone really knows: People’s cars, like the clothes they wear and the beer they drink, are an extension of their personalities. And that’s the key to selling cars.

Given that this is one of those truths that’s so self-obvious it’s almost embarrassing to say it aloud, one would think that car-makers have been selling cars based on brand personalities – rather than, say, pricing and features – for decades. Not so.

Well one car company has, Volkswagen. And despite the sickly economy, last October the company reported double-digit growth and its best sales for that month in over 25 years.

Actually, Volkswagen isn’t the only car company to succeed with brand personality approach, it’s just the only car company to do it in North America.

A quick look through the huge selection of international car ads archived at Adforum.com reveals that Volvo has also done a great job, internationally, as has Audi and Renault. (By the way, if you’re into krazy ads, check out the Renault Scenic ‘Change Your Scenery’ spot by Publicis UK. Picture a nightmarish montage of singing dummies, whacked out happy-happy families, and jiving ’50s stewardesses.)

It was also notable that the international online archive had few ads for General Motors, Ford or DaimlerChrysler cars. The reason? No one waits four minutes to download a QuickTime showing yet another car swishing around the curves of a country road.

The big three are the slow learners of the class, but with the recent debut of overall branding ads for GM and Chrysler (a new GM branding spot listing the company’s safety innovations over a nasty slo-mo reverse car accident launched Feb. 9), it’s obvious that they’re starting to realize they’re missing something. (See ‘Car advertising drives off the beaten path’ on page 1 for more on this.)

To be fair, a company like GM has its work cut out for it, thanks to the sheer diversity of its offerings and three levels of branding to juggle (the GM brand, the sub-brands like Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac, and then the actual car models). You can almost feel them struggling to create one personality for GM, another for, say, the Chevrolet line as a whole, and then individual personalities for everything from the Chevy Trucks to the Cavalier to the Camaro.

But just because its hard doesn’t mean you give up, and I’m worried that GM may be doing just that with its Saturn division. Back in 1985, the stand-alone offspring dispensed with the GM brand millstone and went it alone, trying to build a personality around the ‘A different kind of car company, a different kind of car’ positioning. But after seeing sales slide by about 4% last year, GM recently ditched San Francisco’s Publicis & Hal Riney, the original brand architects, and shuffled the account over to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

Asked about what the new agency will do with the brand, co-chairman Jeff Goodby is only quoted enigmatically in the New York Times saying that the previous ads ‘didn’t focus on the cars.’

Some have taken this as an indicator that Saturn will return to old-fashioned feature-based ads. What they need are ads that are about both the cars and the brand. It’s the difference between Labatt just showing a beer for 30 seconds, and showing the beer after a spontaneous game of pick-up on the street.

For an example of how it’s done, you just have to look at Volkswagen. Every ad makes a point about why you should buy the car (‘Round for a reason’, ‘It only looks like a million bucks’), while at the same time reinforcing the overall quirky-friendly brand image with measured humour and likeable characters.

From the Cabrio convertible gliding through the quiet starlight, to the guy who drags his robe-clad girlfriend out to witness the Jetta’s automatic windows, these ads move me, make me laugh, make me want to be like those people… they make me want the car.

That’s what advertising is all about. And if VW can do it, the big three can too.

Duncan Hood

Special Reports Editor