Automotive Marketing: Bad Landing, Wrong Airport

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
automotive marketing bad landing wrong airport

There’s a Lincoln ad on the back cover of this month's Automobile mag. It’s a rear three quarter shot of an MKZ on an empty road in a moody landscape, parked in front of a train crossing. A five line poem referring to astronautical countdowns, racehorses at the gate and quivering arrows hovers above the barrier. The last line is a little unsettling: “Ready or not, here I come.” (Uh, you might want to wait for that train to blow by.) The ad raises an interesting question: does Lincoln’s marketing department have any idea who might want to buy their car?

An hour after contemplating the ad, I caught site of a huge toothy grill glinting in the winter sun. My first thought: I’ve unfairly dismissed the MKZ’ sex appeal. As the rest of the model’s mid-market metal hoved into view, I returned to my original assessment. But I was captivated by the driver. She was straight out of central casting. Harry? Send me a woman of a certain age with perfectly coiffed grey hair, wearing a twin set and pearls and half glasses attached to her ample neck by an elegant chain. The MKZ suited her like a dry martini.

Well of course it did. I didn’t need to face her withering stare in a focus group to know she and her not-so-hot-rod Lincoln were made for each other. Bargain basement snobs need apply. More to the point, she was definitely NOT the type of woman to sit in her MKZ in the middle of nowhere waiting for a train barrier to rise so she could hammer the throttle and disappear in a cloud of front wheel-drive rubber. I could easily imagine her tapping the wheel with a manicured fingernail, pursing her lips, looking at her watch, wondering about lunch.

I’m not saying this highly groomed battle axe was a “typical” MKZ buyer. I have no doubt Lincoln’s marketing department has discs of demographic data detailing the age, sex, income, location and belt size of their average customer– and Dame Edna’s not it. Even if she was, I’m certain there were long meetings on Madison Avenue and in The Glass House hammering out who the average Lincoln MKZ buyer should be– or who the average buyer thinks they should be– and it’s not her. Still, I’m beginning to believe automakers’ marketing efforts are more than a little misguided.

I discussed this idea with my local freelance marketing maven. Marketing be damned, I argued, it’s all starts with product, which begins with branding. Does it really matter how Detroit pitches a ride if it’s another one of those almost-but-not-quite-there products that doesn't conform to the brand's identity (if it even has one)? "Reach higher" sounds good to me, but how about making a car worthy of aspiration? He countered that there’s nothing particularly wrong with Detroit's brands or machinery. They just don’t know how to sell the metal. What successful person buys a Cadillac based on two-thirds of the self-evident truths identified by The Declaration of Independence– especially when its sold out of the automotive equivalent of K-Mart?

After realizing that not everyone shares my product passion (if they did, no one would buy half the crap I’ve driven), I’m beginning to appreciate his perspective. To wit: just inside Automobile’s cover, there’s a double-page spread with an Edge hovering over New York’s Hudson River (what is it with flying cars these days?). A couple promenades in the foreground. The woman is looking the other way. The guy is looking in the direction of the CG crossover– without actually seeing it. In the background, another couple is oblivious to the levitating automobile. The headline? “The Edge is never dull.” The body copy? “All-new Edge with attention-grabbing styling.”

Hang on; the Edge IS dull. Handsome yes; but dull. So what? Surely there are plenty of people who like that sort of thing. Surely Ford should identify what really makes the Edge unique and sell THAT. All this demographic obsession– where automakers shell out millions of dollars to identify a model’s “ideal” customer and get them to spill their subconscious desires– strikes me as an enormous waste of time and money. Why not just build something phenomenal and tell people about it?

In fact, the car industry is suffering from the same over-dependence on market research that led to Hollywood’s steady stream of po-faced rubbish. Of course, not ALL of it’s garbage– if only because of the law of averages is still in effect. But it’s clear that market research is filtering backwards into the design process, exerting more and more influence on what carmakers are building for whom. I’m not saying they should adopt the Field of Dreams strategy, but I reckon strong products from strong brands find their own market. Just look at the old folks clambering aboard Scion xB’s. How insanely great is that?

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  • 207guy 207guy on Jan 13, 2007

    Right on, Artman. I'm convinced that there is nothing Detroit could make that will get many of the posters here to buy American. I'll give credit to overseas automakers when it's deserved. Detroit will never get the same from many here.

  • SherbornSean SherbornSean on Jan 13, 2007

    Could we please never again refer to the Zephyr replacement as the "Z"? I mean, all due respect to Nissan and all

  • El scotto Never mind that that F-1 is a bigger circus than EBFlex and Tassos shopping together for their new BDSM outfits and personal lubricants. Also, the F1 rumor mill churns more than EBFlex's mind choosing a new Sharpie to make his next "Free Candy" sign for his white Ram work van. GM will spend a year or two learning how things work in F1. By the third or fourth year GM will have a competitive "F-1 LS" engine. After they win a race or two Ferrari will protest to highest F-1 authorities. Something not mentioned: Will GM get tens of millions of dollars from F-1? Ferrari gets 30 million a year as a participation trophy.
  • El scotto None of them. The auto industry is full of people with huge egos. It's a case of huge ego = never ever being wrong.GM: The true believers end up at Bowling Green. A fast rising GM executive that just didn't quite make it: Truck & Bus, Fort Wayne isn't really that far from Detroit!Ford: Billy Ford once again, and it seems perpetually, convincing his doubtful relatives not to sell their preferred stock. I give VW a 50/50 shot at buying out Ford; a family buying out another family.Tesla: Straight from Elon: "My Tesla has hidden compartments for handcuffs, ask my latest girlfriend where they're located"Stellantis: Get used to flying to Schiphol. You'll have luggage, lots of luggage.None of the Big 3 will ever admit they were wrong. Tesla will just keep gaining market share.
  • SCE to AUX A question nobody asks is how Tesla sells so many EVs without charge-at-home incentives.Here are some options for you:[list][*]Tesla drivers don't charge at home; they just squat at Superchargers.[/*][*]Tesla drivers are rich, so they just pay for a $2000 charger installation with the loose change in their pocket.[/*][*]Tesla drivers don't actually drive their cars much; they plug into 110V and only manage about 32 miles/day.[/*][/list]
  • SCE to AUX "Despite the EV segment having enjoyed steady growth over the past several years, sales volumes have remained flatter through 2023."Not so. How can EV sales be increasing and flatter at the same time? and H/K/G are all up for EV sales, as are several other brands.
  • ToolGuy Here is an interesting graphic, if you're into that sort of thing.