Automakers are finding value in a grass-roots marketing approach.
The concept goes by several names: brand democratization, citizen marketing, consumer-generated media. Whatever it's called, the idea is to encourage consumers to help promote vehicle brands by expressing themselves.
The approach is influencing the way automakers use Web logs - blogs for short - as well as contests and online films.
General Motors, Mercedes Benz USA LLC, Mazda North American Operations and Audi of America Inc. are among the companies embracing the branding movement.
The grass-roots approach is an extension of viral marketing, which enlists consumers to spread promotional messages online and in other media.
"When viral marketing started, it was about the quick hit, taking an off-the-wall ad and getting your name in front of people," says Michael Wiley, GM's director of new media.
"That didn't necessarily get you anything in the long run," Wiley says. "Today, it is much more about sustaining a conversation, which provides the opportunity for long-term gains."
GM's FastLane blog invites consumer feedback.
FastLane, GM's corporate blog, provides a forum for "consumers, suppliers, analysts or anyone who's interested" to reach GM executives, Wiley says.
The blog solicits Web visitors' ideas. The most "intriguing" communications, he says, are forwarded to company officials, including Vice Chairman Robert Lutz and marketing executives.
When GM prepared to introduce the 2006 Pontiac Solstice, it noticed spirited discussions about the roadster on FastLane and several independent Web sites devoted to the car, Wiley says.
"Traditionally with marketing messages, the process is filtered, and people don't have any method to interact," Wiley says. "It is very mono-directional. We have found that it is much less effective than soliciting (consumer) opinion."
Other automakers have used different techniques to create conversations with potential customers. Last year, Mazda invited consumers to submit photos that offered visual interpretations of the company's "zoom-zoom" brand tag line.
"We can't walk away from traditional marketing," says Don Romano, Mazda's vice president of marketing. "However, it's important to make an emotional connection, which leads to word-of-mouth promotion. This allows for a dialog on the consumer's terms."
The photo contest generated 3,500 entries. First prize was a new Mazda vehicle of the winner's choice.
Romano says Mazda examined the submissions to identify a "common attitude or feeling."
The company is using themes and images from the contest in current marketing campaigns, he says.
"You get so much good input and a better idea of how to market your product," Romano says of brand democratization.
Mercedes-Benz encouraged its customers to send in photos of themselves with their cars for use in TV and print ads last year.
Even automakers' online films have been democratized. This year, Cadillac invited consumers and aspiring filmmakers to submit
The online contest promoted an ad campaign that touted the ability of Cadillac's CTS V-series cars to go from zero to 60 miles mph in five seconds. The competition offered a Cadillac CTS-V as first prize and attracted more than 2,600 entries.
Audi sponsored a campaign this summer that recruited three filmmakers from the American Film Institute to create short movies featuring the new A3. Audi asked its customers to vote for their favorite film online. The winning filmmaker received $10,000 and a 2006 A3.
GM's Wiley concedes that some automakers still view brand democratization as risky.
"But it establishes a direct line of communication with consumers," he says. "It's the unvarnished truth. If we (ignored) any negative feedback or comments, I don't think it would work."