As recently as five or six years ago, automotive event marketing programs were almost exclusively the domain of luxury brands.
That has changed, as even companies such as Hyundai Motor America and Kia Motors America realize the importance of getting more prospects to experience their products.
Frequently the experience takes place at ride-and-drive events, where a highly targeted audience is invited to compare one company's vehicles against the competition.
Because of the increased demand for these events, players such as Motor Trend magazine have joined such veteran companies as Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc. in delivering experiential programs.
While the way in which the companies took shape differs, both believe in creating an event that places their customers' products in the limelight amid an entertaining atmosphere.
AMCI started developing ride-and-drive events 12 years ago at the request of Lexus, which wanted its message delivered at the grass-roots level.
'We developed testing and claim substantiation for Lexus,' says Gordon Wangers, AMCI president. 'After educating their dealers during the week, we took cars on the weekends to consumers and designed driving events that demonstrated Lexus' competitive advantages.'
A few years ago, Motor Trend saw the potential of ride-and-drive events and asked production manager Mike Collins if he was interested in producing them. Collins jumped at the opportunity.
Collins formed Collinizer and asked Tim Graham, an AMCI alumnus, to join him. The company is completing plans for an event marketing program for Cadillac. Cadillac executives would not comment on details.
Collinizer also has developed programs for BMW of North America Inc. and Ford Motor Co.
The list is more extensive for AMCI. The roster includes Acura, BMW, Cadillac, Chevrolet, DaimlerChrysler, Hyundai, Kia, Lexus, Mazda, Nissan, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Toyota.
Change in attitude
Wangers has seen the change in attitude toward event marketing firsthand.
'Getting money for event marketing programs out of the car companies used to be very difficult in the mid-1980s,' he said. 'At that time they couldn't see the advantage of these programs, so they used to pour their money into mass media.'
Wangers said the targeted nature of event marketing is the primary reason for its increased popularity.
'Event marketing is much more focused than mass media. Event marketing is rifle-shot marketing vs, shotgun marketing. Also, instead of 30 seconds of their time, you have three hours to get your message across, and you can do it without having to worry whether this is the time they've chosen to get a sandwich.'
Not that event marketing is cheap. Graham at Collinizer said it costs $100,000 to $200,000 a day to run a ride-and-drive event - from the invitations, catering, tents, parking lot rentals and acquisition of competitive vehicles.
'It's not unusual for a ride-and-drive event to cost approximately $300,000 per weekend - soup to nuts. Some of the higher-end ones will run $800,000 a weekend.'
Taking a ride-and-drive program on tour to hit several cities over a few months could involve a budget in the $8 million range, Graham says.
While that sounds like a lot of money, Graham contends that other customer-contact events, such as auto shows, don't provide the emotional appeal delivered by a ride-and-drive event. Wangers agrees.
'Event marketing gets results: It builds brand awareness, moves units, gets dealers excited because it increases showroom traffic, and our clients get excited because they see their customers get excited. There's really nothing else like it,' he says.
Does that mean ride-and-drive events are a joy to develop? Not necessarily.
'They are a huge pain ... to produce, but in the end, they are a lot of fun. If you love cars, developing ride-and-drive events sure beats a real job,' Wangers adds.