ARTICLE_DETAIL

Social Media Engagement Puts Some Excitement in Auto Brands

3/5/2012
Along with their domination of television advertising during Super Bowl XLVI, auto companies demonstrated their leadership in another area of increasing importance to American consumers: social media engagement. Several auto commercials during the Big Game carried "hash tags" to communicate with Twitter fans how they could access information quickly about the ads and automobiles they'd just seen on the screen, such as "#SoLongVampires" for the humorous spot for the Audi S7  and its daylight-mimicking, vampire-vanquishing headlights.

In fact, U.S. consumers are being reached by auto brands via Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media perhaps more effectively overall than by companies in any other industry. For such a mature business, automakers were relatively quick to catch on to the marketing and communications potential of social media engagement a few years ago, and now aggressive efforts by nearly every brand are collectively keeping the industry at the front of the most irresistible trend in marketing.

"Our overall objective with social media is to humanize our company and make sure we can tell stories in compelling ways, so people can know us," said Mary Henige, director of social media and digital communications for General Motors. "We want to use social media in large part as a platform for telling stories, and we have a lot of stories to tell."

Added Alicia Jones, manager of Honda public relations and, until recently, Honda's assistant manager of social media, "We're not just thinking in terms of pushing our message and in terms of marketing, but about what's interesting to people, what will engage people, what will humanize the brand and develop deeper relationships with customers. The overall strategy is about building loyalty by engaging with fans of both Honda  and Acura , and to help develop sales. Word of mouth has always been one of the most effective ways of selling, and online social media is the new word of mouth."

Consider just a few of the recent social media campaigns that auto brands have used to engage American consumers:
Lexus  leveraged a new feature on Facebook, Timeline, which groups the activity of a brand or an individual on the site by dates. Focused on the 2013 Lexus GS , a major new introduction for the brand that was launched in the first quarter, the brand created an app that showcased milestones in the creation and history of the model, highlighting key moments in social media, technology and design. "We developed this application to empower Lexus fans to engage with the brand in a new way," said Brian Smith, vice president of marketing for Lexus.

Subaru  used Facebook as the platform for the return of a marketing campaign early this year featuring canines, called "Dog Tested. Dog Approved." Tapping into America's love of dogs is a sure-fire way to engage Subaru owners, buyers and potential customers with the brand. So Subaru came out with a "Dogbook" site that includes dog-event listings, "canine social networking," a "dog years calculator" and other dog-centric features. They "are a natural extension of our brand's active culture and further allow dogs to be our owners' social lifestyle partners," said Alan Bethke, director of marketing communications for Subaru of America.

Jeep  launched a winter program focused on its Facebook page, Twitter site, and brand blog. Consumers had to "Like" the Jeep brand on Facebook then visit a page for the brand's "Jeep Arctic Yeti Dig," which included a sweepstakes offering a trip to the 2012 Winter X Games 16, and submit a registration form to play the Yeti Dig game and enter the contest. On Twitter, fans could "follow" Jeep and then, when prompted, tweet back to the brand-and receive a sweepstakes entry.

Ford  built pre-launch buzz for the new 2012 Escape  with a social media-based program called "Escape Routes." Six two-person teams were to compete in various U.S. cities, on the road, and in virtual space as well because in addition to driving, the teams were to solve physical and mental challenges in real time while their social circles of fans and followers play along virtually.
Using their Escapes, the teams are to arrive in a new city each week in the spring, to compete in a series of spontaneous adventures and interactive social-gaming challenges. The specific challenges are meant to highlight the various features of the new Escape, such as automatically opening the tailgate when it senses movement of a foot beneath the rear bumper.

Ford was involved in social media marketing at a time when spreading the word about the Ford brand and its new products-after the Great Recession-was important in helping them break new ground in an arena that was simultaneously exploding. Ford's gambits included "Fiesta Movement," which recruited bloggers and other online mavens to write about the car when it was introduced, and a similar campaign was focused around the new Ford Explorer , which specifically reached out to boomer-age women.

But Ford's most effective social media effort was Focus Doug, a 2011 initiative that featured an orange "spokespuppet" whose online comedic adventures underscored various features of the crucial new model. His smart-alecky antics quickly generated a lot of buzz and continued for several months, generating views on YouTube, fans on Facebook, and attracted traditional media attention to the social media campaign and to the Focus.

"We've had profound success" with social media, said George Rogers, former CEO of Team Detroit, the ad-agency consortium that handles Ford's marketing. "It has been institutionalized as part of our launch cadence. It's no longer in an experimental phase. Look for more of it, deeper and better, from Ford."

Indeed, social media have become a mother lode for just about every automotive brand because they present such rich possibilities for explaining products and brands that can be complicated and complex as well as fun and cutting-edge.