Direct marketing may be the least mastered of all marketing tools used by automakers. Mail, direct response print and broadcast, and the Internet all elicit two-way communication - just what automakers say they need to drive one-on-one relationships with customers.
But too often, it seems, automakers do all the talking and none of the listening.
Blame it on a short-sighted focus on sales. 'The reason why automotive has been slow to reach out to consumers on a long-term basis is because it doesn't have immediate payoffs,' suggests Lois Geller, president of Mason & Geller Direct Marketing in New York. 'They feel they need to move the needle every quarter.'
Saturn and Mercedes get mentioned as being on the leading edge of one-to-one marketing, but even they do not win exemplary marks.
A big question is whether electronic communication will be the factor that brings automakers and consumers closer together. Many in the industry seem to think so:
On Jan. 12, Ford Motor Co. may have become the first automaker with technology that allows it to communicate via e-mail with its customers. 'Now we can respond back quickly and efficiently,' says David Ropes, director of corporate advertising and integrated marketing at Ford.
Lexus Division hopes to be able to talk via e-mail with its customers by the end of June.
Volkswagen is looking at establishing customized sites for its customers - and maybe even selling its cars online.
Victor Doolan, president of BMW of North America Inc., predicts the Internet will be his company's most-used medium for marketing and advertising its cars in four to five years.
Amid all the optimism comes a serious warning:
'The Web is becoming intrusive, too, with ads, and people may not be getting the expectations they want,' says Joe Cronin, vice chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide. 'If the Web doesn't measure up to consumer expectations,' he warns, 'users may get even further negative feelings about the auto companies.'