Automotive Marketing: Losing Site

Michael Martineck
by Michael Martineck
automotive marketing losing site

To say the internet has become an important marketing tool for automobile manufacturers is like saying radial tires are beginning to catch on. And yet Forrester Research reports that many car companies' websites depend on clunky photo galleries, confusing spec tables, complicated car configurators and other layout clichés. “You can’t frustrate and annoy people into liking your brand,” counsels Ron Rogowski, one of the Forrester's senior analysts. “But a lot of automotive websites seem to be trying to do just that.”

Forrester reviewed 900 automotive websites, looking at site organization and design. They found lots of server space for improvement. I spoke to Rogowski about the deficiencies. “Illegible text is the number one complaint," he revealed. "It’s hard to believe in this day and age that text would be so difficult to read on so many sites.”

Rogowski also chastised automakers for raising consumer expectations, and then failing to fulfill them. Brands run highly-focused, deeply sensuous print ads and TV spots that point customers to websites that are hum, without nary a ho in site. “Boredom is a brand killer,” Rogowski said, startling Camcordima drivers everywhere.

Rogowski singles out BMW AG’s site for electronic excoriation. As any pistonhead will tell you, Bimmer’s corporate mantra is ‘the ultimate driving machine.’ By contrast, their website is the ‘ultimate connecting your DVD player to your television experience.’ BMW’s car configurator came in for a critical caning; Rogowski called it staid and antiseptic. In fact, navigating BMW’s website is only slightly less of a chore than tuning-in an AM station via iDrive.

As you might have guessed, Rogowski is brand-o-centric. He implores car companies to creates user interfaces in keeping with established brand values. He singles out MINI's site for praise, lauding it for being as cheeky, dynamic and engaging as their vehicles.

Despite the MINI template, brand e-faithfulness is easier said than programmed– as illustrated by the fact that some of the best brands in the biz have some of the least compelling websites.

Jaguar’s site looks like a layout in Vogue– which does nothing to reflect the brand's visual warmth (burled wood anyone?) or leverage their heritage. Positioning themselves as a fashion accessory leaves a lot of dyed-in-the wool enthusiasts in the dust.

Cadillac's website is guilty of the opposite sin; the opening animation focuses entirely on collector Caddies and their owners; it fails to offer a single compelling reason to purchase a new model. Even those brands with kick ass multi-media (e.g. Porsche) bury the good stuff in relatively obscure sub-menus.

Audi’s site warns you, right up front: never follow. As in, anyone persistent enough to follow them into the sub-menus should abandon all hope of keeping with the program. Everything on Audi’s website looks and functions like medical equipment– and not in a good way.

At least Audi knows it’s suffering from sudden intended click-through. Speaking at the Automotive News World Congress January 16, Audi’s Head of Audi of America announced that he was frustrated Audi isn’t considered one of the world’s premier brands.

Johan de Nysschen has challenged its online agency, Factory Design Labs, to exploit the web’s “anything-is-possible landscape.” "Our goal is to drive the digital lifestyle and allow our prospects and customers to be even more involved with our products as well as demonstrate our product superiority."

More and more companies are sharing Audi’s realization that the internet is where image building and product familiarity gets done. Some even recognize that web-based branding is a whole new ballgame.

As an interactive medium, people expect more clarity of vision and functionality of form from a website than they do from a print ad, TV spot or brochure. From a design POV, the site’s graphics, sound and function all need to mirror a company’s values and position.

Manufacturers are also beginning to understand that websites are more revealing than other media. If a brand is ill defined, the murkiness becomes instantly clear; an effective website cannot be based on a broad, dysfunctional message. The feedback loop between image and internet grows tighter every year. Strong branding means a better web experience, a better experience enhances the brand.

This movement hints at a fairly significant change: distinction equals success. The preeminence of big tent, something-for-everyone brands is declining as their message gets lost in static. The narrowly defined, purpose-driven brands are in accent.

There is, of course, a large piece missing: true interactivity. Branded automotive websites do not encourage the kind of [relatively] free, intimate and ongoing interaction between content provider and consumer that give sites like TTAC their power. Car companies need to treat websites as an open portal to the people who pay the bills.

When (not if) that happens, the car business will undergo its most profound evolution, as the gates to mass customization and other important commercial developments swing open. Meanwhile, well, that’s entertainment!

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2 of 115 comments
  • Dolo54 Dolo54 on Jan 30, 2007

    I'm a web designer/programmer and I definitely like the old version better than the new one. And to Steve S - sorry, but you are on the road to being obsolete. Firefox is standards compliant and I code everything previewing in Firefox, then make damn well sure it works in IE6/7 and Safari. Let me guess, you are still using tables for layouts. You better think about learning some new skills and doing things the right way (standards compliant) or you will find yourself looking for work in the not-too-distant future. Not to flame, that is a serious warning.

  • Loiosh Loiosh on Feb 01, 2007

    *breathes a sigh of relief* Much better...I'm home, again. :)

  • Kendahl A very complicated VW that's 11 years old. A money pit even if it's been well maintained.
  • Kendahl One of the universities where I used to live has an FM station that mostly plays classical music. I would leave the radio turned on and tuned to that. AM? I haven't listened to AM since I got a radio that would receive FM.
  • S J I’m here to say I don’t know about H #, but in German b flat is sometimes called “H”.Thats why composers (Liszt IIRC) could compose a theme and variations on B A C H.b flat sharp would be C, so there wouldn’t be a point.
  • Tassos The original, iconic 1964 Mustang sold for about $2,000.Is anybody still in doubt that the US Dollar has gone straight to hell?
  • Tassos I just read in Electrek that Lucid had to lay off 18% of its workforce, which amounts to a HUGE (considering the very meager production numbers) ONE THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED hard to replace employees laid off!!!