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Porsche GT3

Hey, it’s the 1 year anniversary of The Hopkinson Report! So what’s my secret? Either delve into a topic that you’re really really into, or meet and interview people doing very cool things. As a car geek, I spent 4 hours at the New York Auto Show. So in a testament to my very first episode, the Porsche vs. the iPhone, I’m going to talk about cars, and marketing.

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First let’s set the scene… The New York Auto Show is a massive production, a popular trade show that takes place at the Javits Center in Manhattan for up to 12 hours a day over the course of 10 days. Saturday April 11 brought pouring rain to New York City, making it the perfect day to be inside but do something fun. After sufficient food and caffeination, I descended into the belly of the beast.

The crowd was extremely diverse. There were plenty of 30-something white guys like me ogling the latest Porsches, families of 5 climbing in and out of minivans, and gangly teenagers with newly-minted driver’s licenses in the Fast and Furious demo talking tiptronic transmissions.

I also spotted a few secretly giddy Dads that probably implied to their wives that it would be a big chore to lug the boy to the show. Later on, he would ruin his 8-year-old son for the next 50 years by sitting him in the driver’s seat of a $100,000 Mercedes convertible, not realizing he had planted a seed in the kids brain and that he wouldn’t actually get to OWN that car until he was nearing retirement.

Kid behind the wheel of a Mercedes

But with a fun, free-for-all atmosphere where everyone there patiently followed the car show etiquette of taking turns getting to sit in most any car they wanted, and without the normal stress of a used car salesman in a bad suit hovering over you, it was bliss for a car geek.

And things were even better for a podcasting car geek. Why? Because there were plenty of approachable, intelligent, factory-authorized, data-spewing representatives dying to tell you about their products. For example, I opened up every conversation with two questions, ‘So, how’s the show going?’ followed by ‘What’s the big buzz for [name of automaker].’

Every answer was a resounding ‘Fantastic!’ followed by a carefully prepared soundbite about the latest and greatest car.

But things got interesting when I started asking about social media, marketing, the economy, and connecting with the car-loving community that surrounded them.

Clearly some of them got it, while others were struggling:

BMW
The person I spoke with at BMW gave me a great overview of the underlying goals at the show. What is going to sell the most cars? To that end, she described the three levels their company had.

BMW Z4

At the top, was the national level. They dictated the overall marketing of the brand, and was responsible for the more holistic consumer interaction, such as last year’s 1 Series ad campaign aimed at the younger Facebook generation, with a rumored $15-$25 online ad campaign, or this year’s BMW Z4 painting promotion.

At the bottom level are the dealers, who only want one thing… people in the showroom taking test drives. Her position was as the middleman between the two, coordinating regional media buys to make everyone happy.

BMW Z4 Promo

So how are they doing on social media? I had trouble finding an overarching official Facebook or Twitter page, but there were plenty of fan pages, and they tied in their Z4 painting promotion with an iPhone application in the iTunes App store. Nice job.

NISSAN
The Japanese automaker impressed me on two levels, but left me scratching my head on a third. I was particularly curious to check out the 2009 Nissan Murano. When I last attended the Auto Show, there was a lot of buzz about the Murano and I thought the exterior looked sharp. But when I slid behind the wheel, I felt the mostly plastic dash area felt very cheap. A quick check of the updated 2009 model showed a much sturdier, well-built cabin.

So it came as no surprise when I spoke with one of their reps, they said their goal of the show, was to gather as much customer feedback as possible. Each rep on the floor filled out detailed feedback reports at the end of each show that would be relayed back to the manufacturer. Clearly this feedback was taken to heart in the last redesign.

When I asked about how the economy has affected them, she noted that the Nissan Versa was one of the only cars that was priced below $10,000. Yes, a new car under $10k.

Then I asked if they were using social media to interact with customers. When I mentioned Facebook, she actually said that all employees were discouraged from associating with Nissan in any way on Facebook.

This is yet another decision that major corporations need to face with employees. With over 150,000 workers worldwide, this would certainly be an opportunity for evangelism of their brand. But they viewed the risk of an employee standing proudly next to their new 370Z, positioned next to a photo of them drinking heavily at a barbecue, to potentially send the wrong message. I can understand their position.

VOLKSWAGEN

I spoke at length with a friendly rep at VW. There was a lot of buzz in their section, as they showed off their Jetta TDI clean diesel, which won a Green Car of the Year Award, and their Golf TDI won World Car of the Year.

I was also curious to see the new Volkswagen CC.  This was a case where I thought their initial marketing campaign was excellent. The car looked amazing in slick print ads and well-produced TV commercials. But how was it in person? I’d have to say it was solid. They noted how many people compared it to a Mercedes CLS, and the body style definitely has similarities. It starts at $27k and climbs all the way to $44 depending on options.

Then I asked them about Facebook and Twitter, and to her credit, the rep lit up, led me over to their desk, and handed me a postcard. But upon inspection, it was clear that they had been printed hours before the show as an afterthought. Was it the lack of any design element? Well, yes. That, and the fact that THEY SPELLED VOLKSWAGEN WRONG.

I was trying to figure out where they were sending me, and it said

Facebook Pages
Volkswagen of America Public Relations
Volkswaegen Jetta TDI Cup

Really? You think asking people to join the global public relations Facebook fan page is going to endear you to customers?

And how do I find that? She said I should just search for it. Hey, I have an idea. How about Facebook.com/VW?

How are those sites doing? Try 130 fans on the first one and just over 200 on the other.

Then I checked out their Twitter pages.
Twitter.com/VWPR?  11 followers, 11 updates.
The Jetta TDI page? Just over 100 followers, 10 updates.

Clearly they’ve just started testing the waters here.

LEXUS
As always, the Lexus cars were sleek and appealing. The good news about their social media? The rep I spoke with – who actually came across as a little too slick for my taste – whipped out a very cool, custom-made iPod touch application in order to take my information so that they could follow up. The bad news? When I asked him if they were on Facebook, his response was ‘Um, I don’t know. I don’t really like going online much.’

AUDI
Leading the buzz for Audi was their head-turning, $114,000 Audi R8. But when asked about the economy, my rep was quick to point out that their line started with the $27,000 A3, that they had cars up and down their line to compete with Mercedes and BMW, and that sales were actually strong.

Audi R8

Which brings me to their Facebook page. So while Lexus was indifferent, Nissan discouraged it, and VW is finding their way, the Audi Facebook page has attracted a whopping 358,000 fans since they went live on November 29, 2007. How do I know that date? Well, that single post is the only sign of any interaction whatsoever on the page on behalf of the company.

The good news is that fans post on the wall, and conduct 500-post discussions, but it seems to me a lost opportunity when Audi doesn’t engage with their passionate audience, missing the chance to post events, upload photos and videos, and discuss new products.

PORSCHE
If you expected wide-eyed men from age 10 to 60 getting giddy when slipping behind the wheel of the latest 911, you guessed right. They even capped it off with free posters for kids to hang in their rooms over their bed. They’re creating a new generation of dreamers.

As far as truly connecting amidst the impeccably dressed staff, I had a great conversation with a rep from the Alabama-based Porsche Driving school. In addition to describing their offerings, from a 1-day high performance driving lesson, to a 3-day advanced competition driving school that culminates in being eligible to apply for a racing license, I really got the low-down on some technical questions I had. A good resource.

TOYOTA
The area surrounding the world’s largest automaker was entertaining to all ages, with an interactive trivia contest, complete with an over-the-top, Bob Eubanks-style host. While I wasn’t the least bit surprised that they were hammering home the marketing on the Prius Hybrid, I was completely caught off guard when the rep told me that another major focus for them at the show was pet-friendly cars.

We’re talking
-    Dog seat belts and restraints
-    Dog ramps
-    Dog booster seats

Evidently you can also buy “Doggles,” goggles for dogs who like to stick their head out the car window.

User Data collected at car shows

As far as fan interaction, they had a nifty tablet computer to take buyer information for following up later.

PONTIAC
Look, I swear I didn’t go out of my way to find issues with our GM whipping boys. I was waiting in line to check out a car, and as the couple in front of me emerged, they were grossed out and pointing and confused. The husband’s hand was covered in black grease. Before I entered the car myself, we determined that he had placed his hand in the sunroof as he got out, and that’s where he got his unexpected surprise.

cupholder

I slipped into the driver’s seat and started checking out the interior, and in the course of my inspection, the plastic cupholder in front of the floor-mounted shifter popped open, revealing a hole that let you look directly down at a bundle of exposed wires and metal, practically toward the drivetrain.  Not giving me confidence in their build quality.

cupholder-broken

And while their ‘Dine and Drive’ promotion, offering a $50 gift card for dinner just for taking a test drive was nice, it didn’t have the pizzazz of other companies.

So let me conclude with two companies I was most impressed with.

MERCEDES
The German automaker had lines 5 and 10 deep waiting to sit in their wide array of cars, from sedans and coupes to the $135,000 SL63 AMG convertible with 518 hp.

mercedes-interior

They connected with customers in three ways.

1)    Instead of paper brochures for over 16 different models that would take up space and cost money to store and ship, they handed out ID cards not only with a URL on them that would bring you to a website, but also with a personal access code so they could track where you came from. Very smart.

2)    Next, they had a VIP lounge behind the desk, almost hidden from view. Attendees that were already Mercedes owners merely had to show their key to gain access and take a break away from the crowds. But the rep also explained that it was a great perk for local dealers to hand out to customers, getting them to go to the car show to see the latest and greatest models.

3)    And lastly, the rep invited me to join ‘Generation Benz.’

This was a program targeted at 21-31 year olds. Clearly they were looking for the next generation of decision makers. Because I was, ahem, slightly older than the demo, I snuck through their login, and was greeted with the following text:

This is an exclusive community created for you and others like yourself to interact and collaborate with the teams at Mercedes-Benz. Your involvement in this community helps us understand your likes, dislikes and your opinion on anything. Aside from current and future vehicles, we’ll talk about everything; even your opinion on the latest trends. This is your chance to have a direct impact and help shape the future of the brand.

What followed next was a video from the VP of Marketing.

Sounds like they’re trying to be fully engaged with their audience and make a connection.

HYUNDAI
But the car company that impressed me the most?  Hyundai. Let me tell you why.

I was really impressed with the quality of the Sante Fe at the last show, and wanted to see if they had kept up. Their main focus for 2009 was the Genesis sedan, which was named North American Car of the Year.

I could see why. It was solidly built, fairly luxurious on the inside, and had geek items like 528 watt, 17 speaker surround sound, Bluetooth connection, and AM/FM/CD/MP3/XM with iPod, USB, and Auxiliary inputs. Great for listening to podcasts.

My marketing mind then asked, I wonder what cars they see as their competition. And as I grabbed a flyer and walked over to a rep, I glanced down and saw that they had a chart on the back of the document, answering my question. They put their $37,000 4.6 model up against the $53,000 Lexus GS460 and $61,000 Mercedes E550. The features stacked up well at half the price. A great job marketing themselves vs. the competition.

But what I like best is how they are gaining trust the right way, slowly and surely over time.

No one would argue that Hyundais of the 90s were terrible cars, and I’m sure many people still think of them that way. Owning up to this, that’s why the rep I spoke to told me that’s why these car shows are so important to the company… because people can come and see for themselves and change their attitude.

And what they’re doing is taking away any reservations they customers would have.

-    Worried about safety? Check out the ‘cut away’ car showing all the safety features.
-    Worried about reliability? They have a 10 year, 100,000 mile warranty.
-    Don’t want to buy a new car in this economy? I’m sure you’ve heard the hype mixed in among dozens of commercials, but I think it bears repeating. Now I’m sure there’s lots of fine print, but on the surface, with their Hyundai assurance program, if you buy or lease a car and then lose your job in the next year, you can return the car.
-    And with their limited time Assurance Plus, the guy said if you lose your job, you can skip up to three payments, and if you keep the car and then get your job back, you don’t have to make those payments back. Seems impressive to me.

Hyundai Genesis Safety

How’s that working out for them?  Sales in Q1 were up 1% vs. Q1 last year. Not many car companies can say that.

As they were showing off their high-end Equus car, that they are debating bringing to the US, they had several people on hand whose only job was to listen to anything the audience had to say and answer any feedback. Seems like they right marketing plan to me.

So there you have it… On the one year anniversary of The Hopkinson Report, you have 10 companies competing in the global economy for your hard-earned dollars and trying out social media, some getting it more than others.  The question is, who is more likely to still be doing the same thing a year from now, me, or all of them?

NY Auto Show

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