In an expensive national road show, Lincoln is trying to create a grassroots buzz for its new LS sedan, which goes on sale in early summer.
Lincoln has invited 'influencers' to drive the LS during a nine-city tour, which started April 17 in San Francisco with 310 prospects.
The push is part of a long pre-launch of the sedan that started last summer. It reflects a larger industry trend in which companies are prospecting for customers up to a year before a vehicle goes on sale.
The list of LS invitees was culled from prospects who sought more information about the LS. They responded to an 800 phone number listed in teaser print ads or to the sedan's pages within Lincoln's Web site at www.lincolnvehicles.com, said Mary Kay Francis, account manager of Caribiner International. Caribiner, a New York-based marketing services firm, developed the event.
Not all respondents were invited, she explained. Only prospects who said in a questionnaire that they influenced more than four car purchases annually made the cut.
The difference between an 'influencer' and other respondents is 'they can be a source of advocates, information and free publicity within their circle of friends,' Francis added.
Invitees, aged 30 to 50, are car enthusiasts who are Internet savvy and own a wide range of vehicles, including Land Rover, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
BRAND TEAM HITS THE ROAD
The road show is part of Lincoln's 25-city LS training effort for its dealers and their sales staff, also handled by Caribiner. The tour ends in mid-June. The LS consumer events will be held in only nine of the cities, including New York and Seattle next week.
A continental breakfast is served before members of the LS brand team present a 15-minute briefing about the car. Participants in the 90-minute event test drive the LS as well as the Audi A6, Mercedes-Benz C280 and BMW 528i.
Engineers are on hand to answer questions. Hors d'oeuvres are served at the end of the event, and LS key chains and swank LS catalogs are distributed. Invitees also receive a follow-up thank-you letter with a survey about the experience.
The San Francisco event at the Treasure Island resort was the most elaborate because it lasted two weeks, the longest on the tour. The other events will be at sports arenas, race tracks and other venues. The show displays Lincoln signs and lifestyle photos that try to bring the brand to life.
Lincoln hopes to have a minimum of 300 invited prospects in each city.
Jim Rogers, general marketing manager of Lincoln, said the LS launch will be much larger than the one for the Navigator sport-utility, declining specifics.
Lincoln spent more than $6 million on the San Francisco event. The price tag included three crews working 12-hour shifts over two weeks to set up the Lincoln-steeped environment.
The ad agency Y&R, based in San Francisco and Irvine, Calif., handled LS teaser ads appearing in that market during the event. They included bus wraps, a blimp and billboards. The simple ads had single words with the letters LS in them, like Bliss and Pleasure, with either the Lincoln logo or the name Lincoln. The LS car was not shown.
'This has been a very long tease,' said Ian Beavis, marketing communications manager of Lincoln. The brand started running LS teaser ads in auto enthusiast magazines last July - its first buff-book ad buy.
A large amount of LS marketing spending will be on events. The car's event budget is up 'a couple of hundred percent' compared with that of the Navigator, Beavis said.
The LS will be the featured Lincoln this year in the brand's new, three-year sponsorship of the U.S. tour of Cirque du Soleil, a combination of circus arts and street entertainment. The deal 'will help build awareness of this luxury sedan with successful, independent-thinking consumers who are among Cirque's audience,' said Mark Hutchins, president of Lincoln Mercury.
John Slaven, president of Slaven Marketing Services, a consulting firm based in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., said the LS consumer events are a good way to attract prospects who would not have considered Lincoln before.
Lincoln is not the only early bird creatively looking for 'influencers' and prospects.
In July 1996, Audi of America Inc. began loaning its new A8 sedan for two to four weeks to influential, early adapters, ranging from restaurant chefs to former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson to football coach Mike Ditka.
About 30 people in nine cities drove the cars, which went on sale in fall 1996. Audi also parked the sedan in front of upscale restaurants with product specialists on hand to answer questions.
Audi said it was a great way to create a buzz about the car and more efficient than traditional media, such as TV and radio.
DaimlerChrysler started in January to build a prospect list for its Chrysler PT Cruiser, scheduled to reach showrooms in spring 2000. Chrysler is collecting data from respondents via business-reply cards or an 800 phone number distributed in brochures at auto shows or its Web site at www. chryslercars.com.
The push expands with magazine ads by Bozell Worldwide of Southfield, Mich., in May auto buff books. Those ads include business reply cards and the Web site address.
Mercedes-Benz USA Inc. started a two-year direct-mail campaign in 1995 to prospects seeking their input for a then-unnamed sport-utility it intended to build. By the time the ML320 sport-utility went on sale, Mercedes had more than 100,000 consumers who said they were interested in buying the vehicle.