Carree L Syrek, WARC’s US Associate Commissioning Editor, shares insights about what it means to be a “car family” in the US, and how that intersects with American automotive marketing.

This article is part of the July 2022 WARC Spotlight US series, “Consumers drive automotive toward change.” Read more

I grew up in a “car family”. Three of my most vivid memories from childhood involve cars. My maternal grandfather drove a harvest gold Pontiac LeMans with an aroma of Benson & Hedges cigarettes. I can still smell it in my head, and I smile – broadly. (He was an amazing human).

On the other side of my family, my paternal grandfather fell into a category of consumers we are very familiar with – the status seeker. He always drove a Cadillac, the last one being a sedan DeVille; essentially, a land yacht with comfy seats which taxied my sister and I to dentist appointments and fishing expeditions.

And my father sold Pontiacs. I can still see him doing sit-ups in the morning, then donning his pressed shirt and tie and crushing it. He was a really good car salesman.

Most Americans live in “car families”

But even if cars for us were, in part, the family business, the truth is that most American families are “car families”. Our cars are an extension of our homes, badges that represent our beliefs and economic status, a vessel for our lifestyles, and, of course, a cultural touchstone. They are central characters in movies like “American Graffiti” and “Thelma and Louise”, and in songs from “Born to Run” to “I Can’t Drive 55.” Auto shows in the US are family outings, too, as are car races.

The development of much of the country was possible because of cars, which is why it’s hard in most parts of the US to get by without one. According to a pre-pandemic survey by the American Automobile Association, Americans drove more than 220 miles each week, which adds up to driving round-trip between San Francisco to Washington, DC every year – twice.

And our reliance – and fascination – with cars adds up to a ton of advertising spend, as well. According to WARC Media, the automotive category alone in the US will account for $14.6 billion in expenditure this year.

For WARC US, a Spotlight focusing on automotive is thus a no-brainer.

But the car market is changing – even here

The audience for cars is getting younger, and that – in today’s world – brings with it substantial change. Older generations are comfortable with their ICEs (internal combustion engines) and traditional car dealerships, but younger generations want more: More accountability to the environment; more innovation; more customizable options; and definitely more personalization and less “hard sell”.

These younger consumers want an experience, too. This means that auto marketing needs to evolve. Lexus, and its agency Team One, is taking this very seriously, and identified a way to challenge its current luxury car competitors in this exciting new world.

WTF? A pick-up truck?

I got my first new car in 1986 when I was in college. I wasn’t allowed to buy anything foreign. It was American or nothing. If you are old enough to remember cars in the mid-80s you will also remember just how awful some of them were. Case in point, my purchase was a model year – 1987, 2.3-liter Ford Mustang. STOP LAUGHING! Like so much about being a member of Gen X, this ended up being an extreme disappointment.

As an adult, cars were relegated to the utilitarian bucket; never new, rarely glamorous. Cut to mid-2020, with the pandemic in full force, and our dear Subaru was on the outs. We paused before running to our go-to used-Subaru dealer (plenty of cars were available for purchase then). “We really could use a pickup truck,” said my husband. How many partners in the US have heard those, or similar, words?

Guess what we bought? A 2020 Ford Ranger XLT, a mid-sized pick-up truck. I’m still kind of shocked. Having driven used, old cars for so long, and being typically indifferent myself about cars, this truck was a game-changer – Apple Airplay, the FordPass app, and many features I probably haven’t discovered yet. You get my drift. Personalization was coming into view.

Celebrity marketing can still break through

In an era of personalized communications, the mass-market appeal of celebrity advertising can seem like an outdated throwback.

But Hudson Rouge, Lincoln Motor Company’s boutique creative and media agency, has found a distinct road to effectiveness with the help of their long-time spokesperson, the actor Matthew McConaughey.

Marketing with celebrity spokespeople can be a slippery slope – it is often forgettable, usually capitalizing on the famous flavor of the moment. That can yield short-term awareness and extra eyeballs, but converting a consumer to purchase, historically, has not been common.

Jon Pearce, Hudson Rouge’s Global Chief Creative Officer, details the strategy and planning behind McConaughey becoming the “voice” of Lincoln. By taking a quiet tone, and leveraging the actor’s famed quirkiness, Lincoln focused its campaigns on a target audience called “Cultural Progressives” – that is, people who are curious, self-sufficient and forge their own path.

The new used car market

Then, in the fall of 2020, we decided to sell our Subaru BRZ and found ourselves in the world of online used car dealerships, exposing us to another slice of the automotive pie that’s in a state of transition.

Contactless, all-online car buying has gone from a novelty to a channel experiencing growth and efficiency pains at the same time. And changing the used car buying and financing experience into something more personalized, and less stressful, while supporting brick-and-mortar car dealers is the mission of TrueCar, as described by Beth Mach, its Chief Consumer Officer.

Better late than never … or maybe not

How relieved am I that I purchased and sold vehicles early in the pandemic? If I were in the market for a car at this moment, I’m fairly sure I would throw up my hands, be grateful for working from home, and just wait, like everyone else. Cathy Taylor, WARC’s US Commissioning Editor, really didn’t have that luxury. In “A long, strange trip through 2022’s automotive sales funnel”, she describes what it’s currently like to purchase a car. Godspeed, Cathy.

What a show!

In April 2022, the New York International Auto Show was back at the Javits Center after a two-year hiatus. In preparation for this Spotlight series, my adult daughter and I were in attendance (I’m not going to miss an opportunity to see Bond cars up close and personal).

It’s a whole new world out there. Now, a Ford Ranger XLT is not enough. I want a Ford F-150 Lightning and the “frunk” – the trunk that is at the front of the truck. Or maybe another Mustang; the Mach-E of course! I feel like the prodigal child coming home.

You would have to be living in a cave not to be aware of electric vehicles (EVs), and how the auto market is going all-in on the technology as was clearly evidenced at the show.

From a vertical known for its gas-guzzling, devil-may-care attitude, paying serious attention to sustainability and climate change was now in full view.

Megan Ryan, VP, Client Strategy in NBCUniversal’s Advertising & Partnerships division, and who oversees Automotive Industry Strategy, explains how the automotive industry has the opportunity to take charge of this market disruption, not only by lifting the EV category, but extending that to society in general. As is the case for marketers for any new vertical, this is a shared responsibility.

Experiential – and effective

What could all my car history possibly have to do with marketing effectiveness? A hint at the answer comes with one of Ford’s activations at the auto show.

As an ex-marketer, I’m really hard to impress, especially having worked in the events space. The bar is high. But from the walk up to Ford’s indoor “runway” track, to the online sign-up process while baby-stepping along in the queue, to a test ride in one of two Lightnings or a Mach-E, everything was well-planned and interconnected, with plenty of engagement opportunities with the Ford reps.

My daughter and I let a few folks go ahead of us, because we wanted to be in the Lightning, which was driven by a woman. It goes like this. You jump in, buckle up, and while the driver is dropping some impressive performance statistics, she FLOORS it – and while you’re still processing that this EV monster goes 0–60 in four seconds flat your mouth drops open when you notice the really hard-looking wall of the Javits getting closer and closer, and at a very swift clip. Then you stop on a dime, with your mouth still wide open. I said I was indifferent to cars. I guess I lied.

Scotty Reiss, founder of online platform A Girl’s Guide to Cars, notes that the US auto industry is struggling to rebound from the pandemic. But with few new, or even used, cars available, there is still an opportunity for car brands to continue marketing (with not a lot to actually sell) using a deeper focus on what consumers are craving: More experiential opportunities to engage with brands and not solely dealers. Auto shows and feature/function events like Rivian’s “experience hubs” or Camp Jeep support that effort.

And remember what I said about cars being an extension of our homes? The F-150 Lighting can serve as a back-up generator if the electrical grid goes down.

Back to the test ride!

When my ride in the Javits was over, we were asked to respond to a short survey about the experience, purchase intent, and some basic demographics, after which we were given a fun photo-op with the various Ford “electrified badges.” The photo is delivered to your registered email in seconds with links to social platforms so you can share away.

SPOILER ALERT: But here’s the kicker, and the reason that I’m telling the story at all. Mere minutes after receiving the “electric” photo, another email popped up, with an attached video. I am super-skeptical of marketing messages like this, so I didn’t watch it at first, because I thought it was going to be just another “spot.”

Turns out I was right, but not in the way I expected – at all. Have a watch.

Yup, that’s me in the front seat and my daughter in the back. Ford filmed these test rides from inside the car to capture the rider’s reaction. Who knew? (But before anyone goes nuts – you have to sign plenty of waiver stuff when you agree to the ride). And in minutes, Ford integrated that recording into our own personal Ford F-150 Lightning ad, with all those sharing links included.

The last perk from the ride was knowing that if I booked a test drive with a dealer, I would receive a $50 Visa card for my efforts. That sounds like some well-planned, integrated tactics around a solid experience strategy.

Remember how I said I was difficult to impress? Well, color me “surprised and delighted”, as we marketers love to say. This is what the auto industry needs to maintain focus on: EV education, technology growth and adoption, supporting infrastructure and dispelling consumer hesitations, to make contemporary transportation more efficient, personal and, most of all, a whole lot more fun.