DETROIT - Automakers want to hug customers tightly - to take them on vacation, hang out with them on weekends, chat with them on the phone and over the Internet.
That will not be easy, even though automakers have powerful new ways to touch consumers, such as the Internet and cable TV.
Consumers are fickle, stressed out and pressed for time. And it is not at all clear they want big auto companies to be their buddies.
Automakers may not be sure how to execute their big plans. But it is clear that if they get their way, they will be involved in customers' lives in unprecedented ways. That message echoed through speeches and interviews at this month's Automotive News World Congress and the North American International Auto Show.
Take special events, for example. Saturn Corp. holds homecomings, and Land Rover sponsors 'adventure vacations.' BMW canceled all other promotions last year and ran 60,000 people through its Ultimate Driving Experience road show. Jeep sponsors Jeep Jamborees and Jeep 101 off-road events.
Now, the biggest mass-marketer of them all, General Motors, is getting into the act.
Phil Guarascio, GM vice president of North American advertising and corporate marketing, said last week that GM will stick with its recently introduced 'Auto Show in Motion' to show off new models, even though it is hard to show a direct effect on sales.
'It may take us three years to measure the effectiveness of this, in terms of return on investment,' he said during a panel session at the World Congress.
But special events are just some of a confusing array of new ways to touch consumers. 'Never before has so much technology and information been available to mankind. Never before has mankind been so confused,' said Bud Liebler, another World Congress panelist. He is vice president of North American marketing for DaimlerChrysler.
Liebler said when he started in the business 30 years ago, he could schedule a national advertising or marketing campaign with a handful of phone calls.
Now, he said, there are the Internet, cable TV, e-mail, direct mail, event marketing and affinity programs. And all of the media segments he cited are expanding.
What is more, he said, automakers have far more advertising and marketing alternatives than they have money to spend on them. In other words, automakers must spread the same advertising and marketing dollars over more media.
Given all the alternatives, choosing the right model mix is tough. 'What is the right blend, the magical mixture of old and new media?' GM's Guarascio asked.
Guarascio, who has roughly $1 bil-lion to spend on marketing annually, posed the question as one of the panelists discussing 'New Options in Marketing, Advertising & the Emerging Media.'
WHERE THE MONEY IS
Meanwhile, the stakes in the consumer-relationship game are high because the car companies want to sell more than cars and trucks.
Ron Zarrella, president of GM North America, said GM ultimately wants to sell customers insurance, financing, mortgages, investing services, Internet access, direct TV and digital radio.
'This is what we call total household value. It's an almost unlimited opportunity to extend our customer business relationships beyond
the traditional automotive-related products and services to reach the entire household,' Zarrella said in a speech at the World Congress.
GM does not want nonauto business just for the warm and fuzzy feeling it will give consumers: That is also where the money is.
Zarrella said service and parts, insurance, financing, leasing and rentals represent $625 billion in sales a year, at profit margins up to 25 percent of sales. By contrast, new-vehicle sales and manufacturing, plus Tier 1 supplier sales account for only around $300 billion a year, at a profit margin of no more than 5 percent, he said.
IS ANYBODY LISTENING?
With these big numbers riding on the outcome, customers soon will start noticing far more attention, and scrutiny, from the auto industry. How will they react? There is a danger it could all backfire.
'Personally, it's already scary how much the auto companies know about me. I'm not sure I want them to know much more,' DaimlerChrysler's Liebler said.
Joe Cronin, vice chairman worldwide for Saatchi & Saatchi, Toyota's ad agency, said he read a study that said the average person used to have six friends, but now the person only has time for four.
Consumers have less time and energy because of stress, he continued. Their lives are compartmentalized into work, recuperation and leisure.
It is in the recuperative mode that people use most media, and it is in this mode that they are most resistant to the intrusive behavior of advertisers.
According to Saatchi & Saatchi, 38 percent of TV viewers switch channels when a commercial comes on; another 17 percent push the mute button on the remote control.
'If we make the optimal new media choice with the wrong message,' Cronin said, 'we'll simply duplicate the mistakes of the past.'