Monday, March 14, 2011

Marketing in the Age of Skepticism

There is no need to shout.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Toronto Auto Show at the Metro Convention Centre in downtown Toronto.  Unlike most of the well-known auto shows around the world, the Toronto show does not feature many concept cars and (as far as I know) has not been the launching pad of any brand-new models or designs.  Sure, there are always a few clever concepts sprinkled around the enormous floor space but more often than not, manufacturers bring their standard models to show.  Arguably, as a result (or perhaps more by design) the Toronto show is better suited to individuals shopping around for their next vehicle rather than to drool over spectacular supercars with galactic speeds and prices.

It’s interesting that the show is still as successful as it is.  Ten years ago, it was difficult to imagine the options for consumers on the internet today: you can see manufacturer models, price lists, options, specifications, ‘Build and Price’ a vehicle, get financing quotes and even get in touch with the dealer nearest you.  With all this information at the consumer’s finger tips, you would be forgiven from thinking that auto shows like the one in Toronto would suffer from smaller audiences.  Maybe it is the fun of going (I regularly attend although I have no plans on purchasing a vehicle any time soon), maybe it is because there is nothing like seeing and feeling a car in the flesh.  Bottom line is, people still go.

However, the consumers attending the Auto Show are not the same consumers as ten years ago.  They are coming armed with more information and more knowledge than before.  At this point in time, consumers are more aware, knowledgeable and skeptical of marketing than ever.   Increasingly, consumers understand what makes a car safer, perform better, be more comfortable can see through marketing attempts to lead them away from these characteristics.  It’s no longer enough to advertize or claim a product attribute because consumers will know when you’re telling the truth and when you’re lying.  Consumers want to hear the truth from you because they’ve done their research.  Many of those shopping for new cars will already know about engine size, trim levels and accessories, and they want to know if you are bringing you’re A-Game.  And this presents a problem for marketers: how do you cater to the skeptical?

There was a time when manufacturers could wow us with “more”: more power, more chrome and more prestige.  A company could put a car up on the podium with a pretty model and the sales would presumably follow.  But I don’t think this is the case any longer.

What works:

Providing relevant information and useful figures is one of the most important things you can do at a show like this.  Consumers are more interested in safety, performance, fuel economy and reliability than ever, so communicate your product's benefits.  There are a multitude of marketing decisions that need to be made before putting your product on sale, including brand perceptions, desired attributes and product development and design, and I won’t elaborate on those crucial strategic decisions here.  Creating the right product is the most important marketing decision in the product development chain for creating the right product, for the right people at the right time.  Assuming you’ve made the right decisions and you’ve designed your product to compete in those areas seen as critical by consumers, communicate that.  Be straight forward and clear with consumers because they will identify fluffy easily and tune you out.  Many consumers will know their stuff with regards to technology and pricing, so treat them accordingly.  

What does not work: ‘Sex’ and ‘Glitz’ no longer sell cars.  

Vehicles are no longer seen as a predominantly ‘male’ decision, so putting a glamour model beside your car is not going to sell cars in the way it could before.   The buying decision for vehicles is more high involvement, with a focus on details, and is made increasingly by couples and women as much as it is by men alone.  In addition, consumers are more interested in the ‘steak’ and not just the ‘sizzle’.  Laser shows, flashing lights and loud music are not effective, at least for the majority of car brands and buyers.  Moreover, it looks and feels dishonest.  A North American manufacturer (who shall remain nameless, but you know who you are!) used dancers, acrobats and stunt artists on their grandstand, who danced, jumped and ran around vehicles as they came up onto the stage.  I was amused and maybe even a little insulted that this company believed that I would stand there slack-jawed as people jumped all around a car to loud music and feel the desire to learn more about their cars.  Even more confusing was the contrast between old and new marketing: far away from the grandstand sat a number of compact cars called the ‘Cruze’ (hint hint), a brand new model to North America.  While the gymnasts flew through the air while somersaulting over models that have been produced for years, many more people were mingling with the new Cruze vehicles.  

Why?  Apart from the fact that the Cruze is a brand new model, I think it’s because the marketing approach to the Cruze was entirely different.  It was about details that consumers care about: airbags, fuel economy, build quality, price, handling…  Here is a car built from the ground up to beat the toughest competition on every level and they understood that consumers are more interested in the ‘steak’ than the ‘sizzle’.  Straightforward product truths are what we want and trying to hide behind glitz and noise will turn potential customers away.

Volkswagen has been the king of automobile marketing for years now, and it’s easy to see why when you know one of their biggest rules when it comes to marketing: “Don’t shout.  Consumers will listen to you, especially if you’re talking sense”.