Experiential and event marketing are being used by brands to create and drive word of mouth and, hopefully, some earned media where those having the experience share their thoughts and feelings with their networks. In the past twelve months I have been involved in two experiential marketing programs by competing car brands, Cadillac and Lincoln, both of which involved a social media component.
While the 48-hour test drive I had with each car was a real treat, there were aspects of the overall experiences that left me lukewarm at best. Let me be clear in saying that both cars were impressive, and ones that I would not have considered purchasing were it not for being exposed to them via lengthy test drives.
I would also like to add that I am a car guy. I built them and test drove them for summer jobs at GM when I was a university student. I sold Nissans and Hondas to pay for school when I decided to go back for another degree. I used to subscribe to Road & Track and my wall was plastered with pictures of cars I aspired to drive and possibly own some day. While I am not someone who fixes his own car or changes the oil in the garage, I still have a deep appreciation for them.
Klout May Be Worth SOMETHING
Jump back to last December: I heard about a Klout Perk and checked my eligibility based on my social media influence score. Sure enough, I qualified for the test drive. I had to wait for an available weekend and finally booked mine for January of 2013. As the story develops it’s important to note that this entire process was handled via email.
The validity of a Klout score is not the topic of this post, but suffice it to say that I look at a Klout score with extreme skepticism. Having said that, I was not going to turn down an opportunity to test drive the car for a weekend.
Klout had partnered with GM to execute an experiential marketing campaign, #ATSDrive, to expose the Cadillac ATS to a broader audience that might not have considered purchasing a Cadillac previously. I have driven Japanese and German models for all of my car-owning years, so I definitely fell into the category of folks they were targeting.
The Test Drive
When my much anticipated appointment to test drive the car arrived, someone from GM’s marketing agency brought the car to my house and walked me through some of the features. I completed the paperwork and the car was mine for the weekend. I had a blast with it; I thoroughly enjoyed blasting around in the car with its 300+ ponies under the hood. I laughed every time I knocked my family back in their seats from the engine power when I took off at a light.
I enjoyed the car immensely and have newfound respect for the Cadillac brand and their products. I was sharing my experiences with the car in social media and learned that one of my high school friend’s wife works for Cadillac and was on the ATS team. He passed along a message from her about how proud the team was of the car and I said that they had every right to be. It was an impressive car.
The Follow Up
So that was January. Now let’s fast forward to October, when I was invited via Facebook to an event by someone I know who is involved with Ford Canada’s social media team. Lincoln was holding a series of events where you could test drive the Lincoln MKZ and then enjoy drinks and dinner as part of their #SavourTheCity program.
It was a pop-up dining event that really was enjoyable, despite the small portions. I was able to bring my wife to one of my many digital events and introduce her to my fellow digerati. She now understands Instagram food porn from the slideshow display on the wall during dinner.
After completing a survey regarding my test drive, I was one of the random winners of a 48-hour test drive and Date Night on behalf of Lincoln. I was given a gift card package that included a number to call to arrange my test drive. After this call and some emails, I was all set. As per the instructions, I picked the car up at the nearest Lincoln dealership and was walked through its features before leaving the lot.
The Next Test Drive
I went straight from the dealership to the highway and gave the car a good run on the first night. I continued to enjoy the car for the next two days before turning it in, and it was then, at the dealership, that I was struck by the difference in my experiences with the two experiential programs.
The Cadillac experience was low touch to setup with me provisioning it a bit on my own online, but high touch at the beginning and end of my test drive. The Lincoln was high touch to introduce me to the brand and the car. That high touch extended to phone calls on the day I was picking up the car to remind me and confirm that everything was in order, as well as a call a few days after dropping the car off to get my thoughts and impressions of my test drive.
The Blown Opportunity
However, when I dropped the Lincoln MKZ off, no one seemed really interested in dealing with me. My designated contact had left for the day, the person who had shown me around the car was not there either, and the receptionist with whom I spoke seemed more interested in leaving than seeing what I thought about the car. She simply took the key and that was that. I likened it to dropping off a rental car: “Here are your keys and I’m outta here.”
I happened to have a friend with me who is currently working with a luxury German car and, while he was also impressed with the MKZ, he was left scratching his head as he witnessed my drop-off experience. He certainly took note, and my experience will most likely inform his work with his clients, as he is working with the dealers rather than the corporate brand.
Having worked at the dealership level, this is not the first time I have seen a disconnect between the corporate brand experience and the promise and execution of said promise from the dealer. While some dealerships are corporately owned, most are independent. Some have described the relationship between dealers and manufacturers as tolerant at best. I don’t know if that is what was at the root of my own experience. All I can say is that dealers and manufacturers have to collaborate better to ensure that my brand experience is as seamless as possible.
Think of it as a story in three acts. First, I am engaged with the prospect of a new experience. Second, I have the experience and in this case it was two days with a new luxury car. Third and finally, it is the denouement where my experience comes to an end and I am left with only the memories and, hopefully, rich impressions. If brands do a great job of ensuring a positive experience in each act then it increase the likelihood that the prospect will consider their product. If brands fail during any of the acts even just a little then the prospect’s product consideration is at risk.
I know that it is easy to say, but dealers live and die by service. Selling cars is not their ultimate goal. They want to sell you a car so that you become or continue to be a service customer. Showrooms are loss leaders to build and maintain a base of service customers.
Here I am writing a 1000+ blog post about my experience and I am going to share it with my social networks. Hopefully it will get shared further and spark some conversation. Maybe it won’t. While Klout may suggest that I am influential, I don’t think for a second that there are people out there just waiting for the next word out of my mouth.
At a minimum, other people may have had similar experiences with other car brands or with another franchise where parent brands promise one type of experience that is a far cry from the one had at the franchise level. I am just adding to the discussion
Previous to this blog post, I interacted with Cadillac and Lincoln via social media and even went so far as to create a video of my experience with the Cadillac and posted it to YouTube. I would share it here but my choice of musical soundtrack (i.e. Led Zeppelin) presented a bit of an issue so it is not viewable in all markets. My video and social posts are examples of the earned media impressions that brands hope to gain. Every tweet with the hash-tag relevant to them is helpful.
Experiential marketing lives for word of mouth, especially with the prevalence of social media, but brands seeking positive commentary will have to do a better job of connecting the experiential dots between what they promise will happen and what their channel representative actually makes happen. I know it will not be an easy task. There is a growing industry in service design intent on providing such improvements. Hopefully when I am ready to buy my next car there will have been some progress.
A recognized senior social strategist, speaker, and blogger. He has held senior strategy roles with wireless, e-business, financial, and social CRM service providers, helping clients remain competitive by embracing social media and digital technologies.