This month, tens of thousands of Saturn pilgrims will again descend upon Spring Hill, Tenn., to salute their favorite car company. Last month 2,500 Dodge owners from 46 states trekked to Orlando, Fla., lured by discount rates at two theme parks.
Clearly, Dorothy, we're not in marketing Kansas anymore. The 'owner experiences' once reserved for the Land Rovers of the world are going mainstream. And the industry should be better off for it.
The reason for the change is simple. Automakers find it harder to connect to their customers. Network TV used to be our national hearth. But network TV isn't what it used to be. And traditional advertising dollars are streaming into cable TV, the Internet and other channels.
Special events, meanwhile, give automakers a chance to bond directly with customers. Sure, the events must be loaded with bells and whistles to be a draw. But they give automakers a chance to spend some quality time with their owners.
The immediate hope is that the special experiences will keep owners in the fold. As every marketer knows, it's a lot cheaper to bring current customers back than to attract new ones.
Beyond that, the happenings can even foster a spirit of belonging. As a Houston woman said at last month's Dodge gathering, 'I feel like I'm part of a Dodge community.'
Questions remain. How does a company measure whether its pageant is really working? Will consumers remember the occasion and not the sponsor? How do you reach them if the event doesn't do the job?
Those answers will come. In the meantime, the special events are giving automakers an opportunity to know customers beyond the traditional consumer clinics. The best automakers will take what they learn, blend it with their own expertise, add a strong dose of intuition, and create better products. That can only be good.