LOS ANGELES — Car ads tend to stick with a familiar formula: lots of sheet metal, beautiful scenery, maybe a mention of the various awards the vehicle has won. There's not much there to stir up a viewer's emotions.
While the spots get their points across, automakers will need to do more if they want their brands to resonate with consumers on a personal level.
That was the consistent theme from speakers at the Automotive News Marketing 360 event here last week.
In separate presentations, executives from Honda, Hyundai and Nissan explained how they're breaking the shackles of traditional car commercials in favor of content with a human touch. All three brands sought to appeal to viewer emotions recently during high-profile sporting events with huge audiences.
Honda, looking to advance its "Power of Dreams" mantra, sought to inspire consumers during a star-laden Super Bowl spot this year for the CR-V — which didn't appear until the ad's final seconds. In the spot, celebrities such as NBA legend Magic Johnson and comedian Steve Carell brought a yearbook to life as they shared uplifting messages about the pursuit of dreams.
"It was a chance to make an emotional connection with the Honda brand. The input from our executive team was that the campaign needed to have a 'wow' factor," Jeff Conrad, senior vice president of the automotive division for American Honda Motor Co., said. "We didn't want it to feel like a typical car ad."
Dean Evans, chief marketing officer for Hyundai Motor America, described his brand's tear-jerking Super Bowl spot this year as "an act of the brand."
The automaker visually transported three soldiers to Houston's NRG Stadium using 360-degree pods that placed the soldiers in a suite with their family members attending the game. The pod screens started off blank, but then suddenly morphed into a stadium view in which the soldiers, who were stationed in Poland, could see their families sitting alongside them.
Hyundai's ad didn't feature a single vehicle. It was part of the brand's mission to warm people's hearts that began several years ago.
Evans said reaching people's hearts and brains is a potent combination in automotive marketing.
"We were really good with the brain stuff: We have a very good warranty, our transaction price is just equal to the competition. We were all dialed in there, but we weren't coming over and warming people's hearts," Evans recalled.
Nissan's Infiniti brand continues to build on its partnerships each year with the American Cancer Society, the National Association of Basketball Coaches and the NCAA during the Division I Men's Basketball Tournament. For the last two years, Infiniti has relayed the determined stories of cancer survivors through the Hardwood Heroes basketball game that it sponsors.
The game is played on the same court as the Final Four. The brand generates content around the game that airs on TV and is distributed on social media.
Infiniti also has sponsored the CBS Sports Round by Round Brackets Challenge for seven years. The automaker makes a donation of up to $700,000 to Coaches vs. Cancer when people make correct picks in their March Madness brackets.
Allyson Witherspoon, Nissan Motor Co.'s general manager of global brand engagement, says brands don't always have to focus on products.
Infiniti used the NCAA Tournament to push the QX30, but it also took time to tap into people's emotions by highlighting the courageous spirits of the Hardwood Heroes participants.
Inspirational speaker David Mead, the chief of Start With Why, a group that helps businesses build productive cultures and find their purpose, tied together the day's theme, saying forming human connections makes a brand powerful. But he added that the goal of making those connections shouldn't be to sell more products.
"If you're using this as a marketing tactic or marketing campaign, people will see through your B.S.," Mead said. "It might not be in the short term, but they will see through it, and you will lose people much more quickly than you will ever bring them in."
The idea of digital retailing is taking hold as the car business looks to cater to those who'd rather complete a transaction online.
Nevertheless, there always will be consumers who'd rather deal with a human, Mead says.
"I think maybe in the future, you will be able to buy a car by clicking on a button, and it'll be delivered to your house. Some people will go for that, but I think there will always people out there who want and crave that human interaction. It's how we're hard-wired to operate," Mead said. "I see that becoming more and more important as things become more homogeneous. As it becomes harder to make a choice on features and benefits, it's going to be easier to make a choice based on experience and the human interaction."
Nissan's Witherspoon said advertisers have been using the same performance measurements, especially in the digital space, for nearly 20 years. But she isn't convinced that today's metrics are telling the full story of how people are engaging with content.
She also said brands are still trying to figure out how to reach consumers in a mobile world.
"We haven't cracked how we should start serving up advertising content in a way that isn't disruptive or frustrating," Witherspoon said. "It will be interesting to see how that evolves over time."
Staying with cars
The car segment is gradually shrinking, but that doesn't mean brands can't make a living there.
In 2015, Conrad recalled, Honda fielded questions from an exasperated press during a launch event for the Civic. Conrad said the media wondered why Honda was bringing out a new Civic and investing so much money into a declining segment.
Conrad said Honda's existence is tied to the Civic and Accord.
"In reality, there are still a ton of buyers out there. We sell 30,000 Civics a month; 30,000 Accords a month. We're going to stay after that business. We're not going to run to the other side of the ship just because trucks are hot right now."