Automakers rev up DM

Imagine Ford doing an infomercial for its F-150 truck. Now imagine that infomercial getting five times the target response

Ginsu knives, age-fighting-beauty complexes and lean grilling machines – this is the stuff of long-format DRTV ads, or infomercials. But in a first for the automotive industry, and a first for the company itself, Oakville, Ont.-based Ford of Canada is using the infomercial to sell trucks.

‘We’re challenging the status quo of what truck advertising should be,’ says Dean Tesser, Ford’s director of marketing communications, of the company’s recent national ad campaign for its F-series truck, which incorporated mass media, including TV, print, outdoor and radio, online marketing and consumer events, in addition to its first-ever infomercial. ‘We wanted to go one step further than any of our competitors.’

Automakers are one of the largest purchasers of advertising – particularly TV advertising – and many are increasingly trying unique ad formats, like infomercials, to stand out in the crowded category. As in Ford’s case, some are putting more emphasis on response mechanisms, while others still rely heavily on mass TV. But the formats of choice – or at least consumers’ reaction to them – seem to depend largely on what side of the border they’re on.

South of the line, at least one study is urging auto marketers to look to direct and online marketing to effectively reach consumers. An October market study by management consultants Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, New York, revealed that, within the automotive category, TV ads are less influential than direct mail, and that in fact, carmakers might be wise to re-evaluate their media mix, perhaps moving money away from television advertising in favour of direct or online.

According to the report, only 17% of the 700 U.S. consumers surveyed in a six-month period said TV ads influenced their car-buying decisions. Word of mouth was cited by 71% of consumers as the most influential measure. Surprisingly, almost half (48%) of consumers said a direct-mail offer from a car dealer would influence their vehicle purchase. Ads on online search engines, meanwhile, influenced 26% of consumers.

But in Canada, a similar study shows a different story, says Chris Travell, VP and automotive analyst for the automotive group at Maritz Research, Toronto, which recently surveyed new vehicle owners to determine, among other things, what the most important sources of information were that contributed to their purchasing decision.

According to the 2003 Maritz New Vehicle Customer Study, which sampled about 27,000 new car and truck buyers in Canada in 2003, the salesperson at the dealership and word of mouth ranked highest (respectively), followed by magazine reviews and consumer guides, and dealers’/manufacturers’ brochures.

In sixth spot was dealers’/manufacturers’ Web sites, followed by TV and newspaper advertisements in seventh and eighth spots, respectively. Direct mail from the dealer/manufacturer came in at number 14.

Perhaps the biggest reason direct marketing is more of an influence in the U.S. is consumers’ comfort levels with it, suggests Joanne McNeish, director of marketing research at Ottawa-based Canada Post Corporation. She is responsible for the ‘Canadian consumer attitudes toward direct marketing’ body of research, which is conducted on an ongoing basis for Canada Post, as well as its clients.

‘If automotive manufacturers and dealers have never sent direct mail then the Canadian consumer is not used to it. And as they get more used to receiving communication, it becomes a positive thing,’ she says. It comes down to sheer volume in the States – consumers there see so much more DM, and are that much more familiar with it, she says.

‘Canadians don’t have as much of a relationship with automotive and the mail,’ says McNeish. ‘I think there’s a sense that [the industry here needs] to do a whole lot more testing.’

Most automakers are indeed boosting their DM efforts, although not at the expense of other advertising – namely TV.

‘We have to consider all the channels based on their strengths and challenges,’ says Adam White, group account director at TBWAToronto, which represents Nissan and Infiniti Canada. ‘There is more ability now than ever to talk to people [one-to-one]… and there’s definitely a need to use DM and e-mail, for example. But TV is a passive entertainment medium, and it’s effective.’

TV played a ‘massive role’ in positioning Infiniti Canada’s new Murano crossover SUV, White says, adding that it was, however, supported by print, online and DM (the agency produced an interactive CD ROM that was sent out to prospects and handraisers).

TV is primarily used to establish brand and product image, while vehicles such as newspaper are used to present immediate offers that drive purchase activity, adds Ian Forsyth, director of marketing at Infiniti Canada. Infiniti has increased its use of e-mail communication and Internet advertising, as well as database marketing, as the technology has matured, he says, but no massive budget shifts have occurred – especially from TV to direct.

Direct, however, can be very beneficial in maintaining communication with existing customers, and automakers are becoming aware of this fact, says Tony Miller, CD at Sharpe Blackmore EURO RSCG, Toronto. The agency is AOR for Toronto-based Volvo, which recently launched a safety-themed children’s book, in conjunction with its new national advertising campaign.

‘What car manufacturers are doing right now is refining their databases so they can contact customers at certain intervals along the ownership continuum – 120 days before a customer’s lease is up, for example, they might receive a reminder e-mail. The kind of thing to keep customers in the family, so to speak,’ he says. The sophistication of a direct-mail piece – whether glossy, 3D or in multiple pieces – he adds, will depend on the price point of the vehicle.

In the case of Ford’s F-series campaign – the largest and most integrated product advertising campaign ever undertaken by Ford of Canada – the company targeted about 100,000 existing customers with a direct-mail information piece and poster announcing the launch of the F-150.

But its major push was to reach potential customers and prospects with its multi-channel marketing strategy. All in all, the effort included TV, radio, outdoor, newspaper, magazine, e-business, online, cross promotion and consumer events – all launched toward the end of September. Radio, which is rarely used as part of a branding campaign, says Tesser, was included because of the distinctive voice of the campaign’s spokesperson, Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland. Sutherland also voiced the four TV spots.

The uniquely Canadian creative, developed by AOR Young & Rubicam Canada, of Toronto, focuses on the F-150′s main appeal – that it is the quietest, most luxurious – yet ‘Ford tough’ – truck. Called ‘Rethink Truck,’ the campaign was in keeping with Ford’s overall ad message, ‘Built for life in Canada.’

In an attempt to provide consumers with all the advantages of the product, Ford also created its ‘long-format, product-based entertainment vehicle’ – or infomercial. Launched for four weeks at the beginning of October, the 30-minute spot was loosely based on the reality TV show, Fear Factor.

In the spot, says Tesser, four participants competed in driving exercises that would be daunting, even impossible, in their current trucks (vs. the effortlessness of the F-150). A toll-free number allowed consumers to call in to receive a poster, information package and CD-ROM, as well as a certificate for a belt buckle or key chain upon completing a test drive at their local dealership. The spot appeared more that 370 times on various Canadian television networks.

‘Our message was embedded in the long-format spot – that is why people tuned in. It was like watching a TV program,’ says Tesser. ‘The objectives were exceeded after four days. As a matter of fact, we had to staff more people on the telephones because so many people were calling that our abandon rates in the beginning were too high.’

The latest numbers, he says, show that Ford has exceeded its objectives by five times. The most interesting learning garnered from the experience, adds Tesser, was that 50% of the consumers who responded have never owned a Ford product in their lives.

‘So the creative is reaching a new customer for us,’ he says.

Ford has already begun developing a second infomercial for its Freestar minivan. The 2004 Freestar long-format infomercial is currently in development and is scheduled to be on-air early in November. Equally as entertaining, this particular spot will be based on the popular TV hit, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and will take place at a live wedding, says Tesser.

‘The plan for this launch is to put a greater emphasis on response mechanisms,’ he says. ‘While it depends on the particular objectives and product…direct [marketing] can be very important – especially when you want to talk to existing customers or go after conquest customers.’