Category Archives: auto industry

J.S. Bach, backward time and brand history

One of the puzzles of physics is there is no mathematical reason why time flows forward and not backward as well — all the theories that explain the electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear forces work equally well in either direction. (All right, entropy gives time a push, but we digress.) There is a universe in which you are still a baby, so why aren’t you headed back to mommy now?

Humans are myopic and we tend to focus on today and tomorrow, explaining wars and politics and the corporate obsession with quarterly results (see our debate with @swoodruff and @obilon). Marketers fall into this immediacy trap often, thinking up the latest campaign to give their product sales a lift … without examining the context of their customers’ history. U.S. automakers fell into this boat in 2009, approaching bankruptcy as it dawned on them a vast swath of Americans still doesn’t want to buy their cars (trucks and SUVs, yes, but for smaller U.S. vehicles memories persist of the junky tin rigs sold in the 1970s).

If we are connected to our history, any communication must examine that context. You can’t repaint a brand today without understanding what it was yesterday. All perceptions of value are connected, and sometimes they form loops — like this beautiful riff by J.S. Bach.

Animation by Jos Leys. Via Andy Jukes at Million Monkeys.

Chevy Vegas and Dodge Darts: Consumers remember when you’re bad


When we were a teenager learning to drive, our father told us of a Dodge Dart he once owned where the shift lever came off in his hand. We laughed as he recalled the f***-ing crappy design and how it almost killed him, as he went down a hill across an intersection with the rod waving in the air … it was in fact the first time we heard our dad drop the F bomb.

More than 25 years later we still think of American cars as substandard, even though some, especially Ford, have improved quality and come forth with innovative, efficient designs.The ad above, for the 72 Chevy Vega, may represent the worst automobile of all time, according to a U.S. consumer survey. That car was littered with design defects; pistons were mismatched to cylinders, the carburetor tended to catch fire, the body oozed rust. Bob Eicholz of Hollywood, Calif., commented “after 20,000 miles of gentle driving, it needed a valve job, and possibly a new engine, a new clutch, a new transmission sync gear and new tires.”

The irony of marketing is that consumers need incredible stimuli to think differently about a product tomorrow, but they carry word-of-mouth opinions from yesterday for decades. Once a person’s mind is set against a product, it’s almost impossible to change. The recoil of Americans as they ponder a vast bailout for the U.S. auto industry is almost amazingly unpatriotic, until you consider the pent-up anger consumers feel based on decades of automotive design incompetence. Yes, U.S. cars have improved dramatically … but buyers still remember.

As you head into the new year it might be worth mapping what customers think about your past products. Like a therapist trying to improve a relationship, you can’t move people forward until you address the sins of the past.

Audi’s funny, dysfunctional family

Brilliant creative by Audi, introducing you to one cool couple and their family of twits who drive other, lesser brands. Audi positions BMW as a jerk, Mercedes as old and confused, and Lexus as a family of preppy nerds with undercurrents of hostility. And Audi? Well, just right. Kudos for a mini-long-form format, too; this is the type of work meant to go viral.

Via Averblog.

Vauxhall: Who knew UFOs had car babies?

If you follow advertising you probably heard that what appeared to be a UFO crashed by the Tower Bridge in London last weekend. After a few days of buzz — “what the hell IS that?” — yesterday the big unveil happened, in which the new Vauxhall Insignia car dropped from a silvery floating thing in the sky, men in black looked serious, and women in short attire played electronic violins.

Dammit, there is a place for big silliness in advertising. Nice work by branding shop Cow, especially in avoiding lawsuits from dropping the car on a model’s head. We so wish we had heard the debate in the original pitch meeting …

4 marketing lessons from death on stage


Live theater is dying. The sweet blue-haired ladies who once filled theater seats are moving on to the big stage in the sky, and as younger generations fill basements with big-screen TVs, the arts community is reeling. Pay attention, because shifts in demos and consumption are rocking industries from automotive to zoo attendance, and you too will need to respond.

Eric Smith, marketing director at Westport Country Playhouse, has launched a new blog that pinpoints the challenges of the entertainment industry as audiences shift and change.

“For many theatres the answer seems to fall on ‘we need to bring in younger audiences’, writes Eric. “… but here is the thing: younger audiences are merely a demographic that we have identified who are currently not attending theatre in large numbers. It would be like saying, ‘there are a billion people in China who don’t come to our theatre, how do we get them here?’ “

Eric suggests a deeper look at the marketing process is required, beyond just shifting the demo target. To build upon his post,

1. Reframe the goal.
First, your business target has to reflect the new reality. Has the recession or oil prices changed your customers’ behavior? Does your basic business goal reflect what new level of success is required? How would GM do next year if it maintained a goal to sell X number of trucks as the metric of success?

Theater marketers can do this by refocusing from subscription sales, the past ideal goal, to “multi-ticket buyers” — a nod that consumer behavior has changed, and that people now need more flexibility.

2. Map common pathways to sales.
This means analysis: reviewing customer account histories, looking for patterns among the best customers, and then defining the touchpoints and needs that can increase such behavior among future prospects.

3. Target diversity, not demos. It’s not enough to shift advertising to working female professionals age 35-44. Advertising media plans can target multiple audiences, say, professionals who commute, stay-at-home moms, long-time loyalists, and new movers into the market.

4. Test, refine, redeploy. Advertising plans almost always have unexpected results. Tracking performance by media channel is critical (say, the cost per inquiry from Newspaper A vs. Insert B). As lower-cost lead generators emerge, shifting funds can yield 30% to 40% more customers from the same advertising budget.

Footnote: Eric is a client of Mediassociates. We usually avoid promoting our clients on this news blog, but the thought process he presents is worth watching.

The Think electric car: Less is the new more


Driving in this morning we realized that small cars were suddenly looking sweet. Take The Ox, a concept design by Norwegian car maker Think. The size of a Toyota Prius, this baby is pure electric, goes 0 to 60 in 8.5 seconds, and can run more than 120 miles on a single charge. The car is slated for release in two years for about $25k.

Which is curious. Why do we respond to this design and suddenly crave smaller curves of sheet metal? Does our subconscious realize that resources are scarce? Perhaps it’s the vibe we get before a hot summer, when everyone wants to disrobe, go on a diet, and work on the six-pack … because heavy consumption in times of heat just doesn’t feel right.

We bet this type of efficient design will embed itself in other products, as the combined weights of recession, high energy costs, environmental guilt and consumer conversion to a very visible product — small cars you see every morning — make little the new big. Designers, time to go on a diet.

BMW’s kinky Hofmeister tease


Just as we’d given up sports cars for $4-a-gallon gas, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG brings its 1 Series over the pond from Europe this month to taunt us Yanks with a tighter design and 230 horsepower. And to seal the deal, BMW includes magazine ad copy that makes absolutely no sense.

Here’s the offending copy block:

the BMW 1 Series truly is a car that has been condensed but is missing nothing. The greenhouse with its Hoffmeister kink has been moved rearward.

Now that’s copy! Who could resist? We lunged for the computer and Googled “Hoffmeister kink” five times before finding out BMW’s agency had misspelled it. Bimmerfest.com tells us the Hofmeister kink is not a German sex game, but rather the tiny bottom bend in the C-pillar, the piece of metal separating the rear window from the back glass, which launched in 1961 by designer Wilhelm Hofmeister.


The greenhouse, by comparison, is the grouping of windshield, side windows, back window, roof and support pillars that collectively give most cars the majority of their design vibe. That’s right. The literal translation of Hofmeister kink is curvy top. BMW, you naughty, naughty tease.

Either BMW is targeting auto enthusiasts who speak this rare jargon, or some brilliant ad agency is tempting affluent readers to Google obscure argot in hopes they’ll read more about lovely nuances such as BMW’s 50-50 weight distribution and rear wheel drive. Call the bad ad copy an Easter Egg for the obsessively curious.

Hmm. It does look so sweet. The heck with miles per gallon. We’ll see you at the kinky greenhouse dealer.

Pull your web site out of the Briar Patch


This week we met with several executives to discuss how to acquire new customers online — the usually mix of offline media, Google, and ad networks pointing to the mission-critical web page. We were met with enthusiasm, plus the common barrier of, well, we already have a web site and the development team is working on it … meaning, nothing may happen for months. Their web site is caught in a Briar Patch.

The Briar Patch, you recall, is the maze of thorny bushes to which Br’er Rabbit escapes in classic Uncle Remus stories. The tale comes from the American South, but actually has its roots deep in Central Africa, from folklore trickster stories in which the rabbit represents someone faced with adversity who uses his wits to beat a snarly puzzle. And if that doesn’t sound familiar, well, you’ve never sat in a web design committee.


The fastest way out of a web tangle, we suggest, is to do what leading companies do — create a simple microsite, test advertising to drive traffic there, and see what you get. Great examples abound among automotive and oil companies, which are falling over themselves to reposition their cars or fuel as environmentally friendly. The benefits of a nimble microsite:

+ You don’t have to reposition the entire company to meet a specific need (“I’m concerned about the environment”)
+ You don’t have to change your entire site to go live (“Hey, look, a clean simple site that links back to the main one”)
+ You attract a self-selecting audience (only people searching for this topic will find the microsite)

Toyota, Chevy and Shell all have “green” microsites. Never mind that some of the claims are simple greenwashing; Chevy, for example, brags that its hybrid Tahoe SUV was named Green Car of the Year for getting 22 MPG highway; you can drop a Duramax diesel stock engine into a Hummer and get 22 MPG also.


Doesn’t matter. These sites attract only auto enthusiasts trying to appease guilt about their carbon-emitting ways. The ads driving traffic appear in online sites targeting affluent, educated, liberal readers (David Pogue’s column in NYT) or in glossy print targeting the same (Harper’s). Only those who really care will find out that Volkswagen offered to offset your carbon footprint.

It’s a good case study in tailoring the message to a subset of your audience. The web is one key to converting specific consumer interests into sales action. You don’t have only one brochure. Why in the world are you hinging your online hopes on only one web site?