Sonic stunts turn young heads toward Chevy
DETROIT -- Last fall, Chevrolet's marketers were drawing up a promotional stunt for the launch of the Sonic subcompact that was so wild they decided they had better get the blessing of General Motors' top executives and corporate lawyers.
The plan: Have an amateur driver -- a professional skateboarder -- jump a 50-foot span between ramps while flipping the car 360 degrees. The maneuver was to be performed live and footage used in scads of Sonic marketing. But was it promoting reckless driving? What if he crashed?
GM's top brass ended up green-lighting the stunt. Driver Rob Dyrdek stuck the landing.
And so did Chevy's marketing team. Over the first half of this year, Sonic sales surged to No. 2 in the crowded and competitive U.S. subcompact market, from the No. 4 or 5 position routinely occupied by its predecessor, the Aveo. The Nissan Versa is No. 1.
People inside and outside of GM say that the six-month, Web-only launch built awareness and street cred with 20- and 30-somethings before Chevrolet introduced the car to a wider audience through TV spots. It offers a template for future launches of youth-oriented cars, such as the upcoming Chevy Spark minicar.
People who worked on the Sonic "Let's Do This" campaign say they achieved a goal that caused doubts even among themelves: to make Chevrolet seem hip in the eyes of a generation that hadn't thought much about Chevy at all.
'A fresh face'
"We really didn't have much traction with the younger audience," says Chris Perry, Chevrolet's vice president of global marketing. "We didn't have much baggage, but we didn't have much relevancy, either. We wanted to put a fresh face on this vehicle."
The online campaign featured videos of the Sonic being launched from a plane and hurled from a bungee-jump platform.
If that sounds memorable, consider this one:
The hatchback version was festooned with microphones, cameras and retractable arms to serve as a mobile instrument for the rock band OK Go, which has a knack for making intricately choreographed videos that go viral. Along a two-mile dirt obstacle course, the Sonic collided with piano keys, cymbals, guitars and other instruments as the band's four members rode inside and kept the melody going by pounding on the door panels and windows.
The Sonic/OK Go video racked up 15 million YouTube views within 10 days and prompted Advertising Age, a sister publication to Automotive News, to ponder whether it was "one of the best product placements ever."
The culmination of the Web-only campaign came on Super Bowl weekend. GM used its only 60-second TV commercial during the big game for a spot that stitched together snippets of the Sonic's six months of adrenalin-filled horseplay. It was set to a song by then-obscure indie band Fun. Within weeks, the song, called "We are Young," surged to the top of the Billboard charts.
Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Chevy's creative advertising firm at the time, developed much of the campaign's content. In March, Goodby joined with McCann Erickson to form a joint venture to handle the Chevy account globally.
Campaign or car?
Of course, as with all marketing, it's tough to quantify how much of the Sonic's success can be attributed to the campaign, as opposed to the vehicle itself or other factors. After decades of churning out uncompetitive small cars, Chevrolet has won critical praise for the Sonic's vastly improved driving dynamics, exterior styling and interior.
But a few data points suggest that the campaign turned heads that otherwise might not have been turned:
-- 50 percent of Sonic buyers are new to GM, the highest conquest rate of any Chevy nameplate.
-- 30 percent of Sonic buyers are under 35, double the historical percentage of Aveo buyers in that age category.
-- The Sonic's Facebook page has nearly 450,000 "likes," nearly four times that of the Chevy Cruze compact and nearly double that of the Ford Fiesta, a key rival.
-- In May, 13 percent of online shoppers who considered the Honda Fit also considered the Sonic, according to Compete Inc., a market research company. A year earlier, just 3 percent of Fit shoppers kicked the Aveo's tires online.
Dennis Bulgarelli, director of automotive at Compete, says Chevrolet was smart to methodically build awareness of the Sonic among young people through the Internet before rolling out its TV spots.
"Chevy's strategy seems to have worked," Bulgarelli says.
"Even though it was a new nameplate, they were able to build a strong baseline of shoppers who knew the car. So Chevy could hit the ground running when they finally went the traditional TV route."
Data crunched by Compete from dozens of third-party online shopping sites, such as Edmunds.com and TrueCar.com, tell the tale. In August, the month the Sonic launched, 8,992 people shopped for the car online at the sites studied. By November, three months before GM ran any traditional advertising, the number spiked to 31,933 online shoppers.
In February, the month GM ran the Super Bowl commercials, 43,522 online shoppers considered the Sonic, No. 2 among subcompacts behind the Fiesta's 50,669 that month.
Greg Heath, a vice president at Mark Christopher Auto Center in Ontario, Calif., says many young Sonic shoppers arrive well versed on the car, which he says is unusual for a new nameplate. He says many are adding custom features such as wheel packages and wraps. The Sonic has quickly become the most accessorized vehicle at the group's Chevy stores.
"The younger generation is already excited about the car when they show up here," Heath says. "The customization adds to that. They're able to put their own identity on the car."
You can reach Mike Colias at email@example.com.