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Guest opinion: Whatever happened to the big car launch?

Author: Neil Burrows, client services director, Connect Group.

Over recent years the automotive industry has undergone an exciting period of new product activity around the globe. Recent innovations have allowed it to make impressive strides in fuel economy and performance, deliver lower emissions, introduce alternative fuels and develop increasingly connected and even driverless cars.

With all these new exciting developments, there’s an abundance of technology and driver features that brands have to shout about in order to stand out in a saturated market.

Product launches provide an exceptional opportunity to engage with new consumers and reaffirm a brand’s credentials.  Given they don’t come around that often; they are a highly valuable window in which to build long-term brand value. So why then, is so much of the industry‘s product launch activity is formulaic and indistinguishable, often focusing on price as a key sales driver even in its launch communications?

The industry seriously needs to get its marketing mojo back to prevent it from risking a gradual but inevitable commoditisation with products being sold purely on the latest specification and price. The need for brand differentiation and clear positioning is more crucial now than ever before. This doesn’t only apply to the mid-market brands. Resting on your laurels in not a solution either, brands need to be nurtured. They require investment if they are to remain relevant with today’s consumers.

Today, it’s seems hard to distinguish one car launch execution from another.  So many fit one of the same two moulds. Either a car is lost amongst an array of special effects, or a group of 20-somethings drives around non-descript Euro-town having a good time. The increasing number of media channels only seems to have diluted the message rather than allowed car manufacturers to use it as a way to focus the proposition and reach out to a well-defined target audience.

These campaigns say absolutely nothing new to me. A great car launch should add long-term value as well as immediate impact; it affects how the product is perceived and how it’s positioned in the market. In the long run it should add to the story of what the brand represents. The examples above merely serve as wallpaper with absolutely no clear connection to a coherent brand message.  Instead, they should start a conversation that engages potential customers and advocates.

Given the constant shifts in product development it seems odd that the marketing in this industry seems so predictable.  Why does this happen? 

Car manufacturers work across a variety of European and global markets and, in their effort to maintain consistency and cost efficiency, create a centralised message across them all.  In doing so, the potential to create engaging and immersive campaigns is often diluted by efforts to push a uniform, one-size fits all, product message.  In what is a highly competitive market the need to demonstrate fast results in the short term has pushed product development and design to make big strides, innovate and take risks and yet ironically it appears to have left marketers with a risk adverse mindset.

The long-term result of this will be the commoditisation of the automotive market wherein the main purchase considerations are price, specification and availability. This in turn will lead to downward pressure on margins and, in an industry that requires continuous and highly expensive product development, that is unhealthy.

New media platforms are emerging at an astonishing rate yet, while new channels in online, offline, social and big data may have changed the communications environment, what hasn’t changed is the power of brand storytelling. A story rooted in a clear brand truth can differentiate, sustain, add relevance and bring added value.  It can not only connect with an audience but build aspiration and desire to create an immersive brand experience beyond the initial purchase.

One of the best demonstrations of building a brand story I’ve seen recently launched at last year’s Super Bowl. Jaguar’s ‘It’s Good to be Bad’ campaign featured British actors Tom Hiddleston, Ben Kingsley and Mark Strong, who are all famous for portraying villains, wondering if Brits make the best bad guys because “we're more focused”, “we have a certain style”,  and “maybe we just sound right”, all while driving Jaguar F-Type Coupes. The ad ends with Ben Kingsley saying, “Oh yes. It’s good to be bad.”  This has recently been followed up by the launch of the new Jaguar XE campaign that builds on this theme and consequently adds further layers and equity to the brand.

It’s a clever and well-executed way of positioning Jaguar as an edgy British outsider in markets such as the U.S. luxury arena, challenging brands with a stronger foothold like Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. By running the campaign across online, offline, cinema and social media; Jaguar ensured its message would be heard.

With the emergence of potential new entrants coming to market, such as Tesla, Apple and Google, the need to maximise new product launches is hugely important. This isn’t just about driving short-term sales and life-cycle return on investment, but about building a strong and engaging brand that is relevant to the new generation of motorists.

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