Over the past few few months, two car-related advertising events have gone viral. And not just run-of-the-viral. More like 0-60-in-4-seconds viral.
The most recent example is the "technology and stuff" meme that's popped out of the awkward presentation of a Chevy Colorado to World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner. Rikk Wilde — now known throughout the land and on the Internet as "Chevy Guy" — fumbled in through the handoff of the Colorado keys in a way that was both awkward and endearing. (Wilde isn't a TV guy, for what it's worth — his job is to work with Chevy dealers, and he was starstruck in The Big Moment.)
You felt for the man. Why didn't Chevy parachute in a suave marketing majordomo? Well, in retrospect, the automaker has gotten a lot more advertising mileage — free advertising mileage, it should be noted — from Wilde's authenticity.
It makes sense. Truck buyers value authenticity. And they're going to identify with totally un-media-savvy Wilde in the same manner that they might groove on somebody like pro golfer John Daly, with his manifold faults always on display.
There's a tendency to airbrush authenticity when it comes to car advertising. The idea is to show the car, in all its shiny glory. Trucks will be shown blasting through rivers and sloshing around in mud, but in the the end, they are typically portrayed with shimmering heroicism — even smaller versions, like the Colorado.
Just look how Ford promotes the full-size F-150, the bestselling vehicle in the U.S. since forever ago.
General Motors (Chevy is a GM division) might have been worried about Wilde's unstudied performance yesterday — but the company is absolutely delighted now, particularly given that as CEO Mary Barra said to Wall Street analysts on the company's earnings call last week, "We are very excited about [the] launches" of the Colorado and its GMC sibling, the Canyon.
There's a lot riding on these two little trucks.
The other carmaker that's enjoyed a viral bustout is the aforementioned Ford, with its Lincoln brand. By now, probably everyone with a TV or an Internet connection has seen the assorted parodies of Matthew McConaughey's moody, meandering, stream-of-consciousness ads. "South Park," Conan O'Brien, Ellen DeGeneres, and "Saturday Night Live" have all rolled out light mockery of what is actually something of a risky, unusual campaign for the auto industry.
Again, it's paid off for Ford. Brand awareness for Lincoln has spiked, and even more importantly, spread to a much younger demographic than the automaker has traditionally served — 0r was even targeting with its multi-billion-dollar effort to bring Lincoln back from the brink.
In marketing, what's going on here is known as "earned" media. The paradigm is that some advertising is "paid" — TV spots, for example, or print ads. Other advertising is "owned" — media that Lincoln, for instance, might produce itself, such as an owners magazine that's mailed out quarterly, or a blog.
"Earned" is media that a company or brand inspires and that is disseminated or even produced (as in the case of the Lincoln parodies) by customers, outsiders, fans, and so on.
Paid media is obviously the most expensive. Think Super Bowl ads.
Owned media is cheaper, but certainly not free.
Earned is the closest thing to free a brand can get.
It's also in many respects the most effective and authentic.
Think about it. Rikk Wilde seems to screw up an important moment for the Colorado launch, but the video clip is grabbed by the sharing ecosystem of social media and Wilde's embarrassing moment is suddenly an earned-media triumph. Thank goodness we didn't parachute the suave marketing guy in!
The special sauce of earned media is a essentially free labor of potentially millions of people who will rapidly anoint themselves brand ambassadors, even if their labor takes the form of ridicule. The important thing is that everybody now knows that the all-new Chevy Colorado pickup truck has "technology and stuff." It isn't just something to use to haul around mountain bikes — it's just as sophisticated in its infotainment and connectivity as many luxury cars.
The auto industry has certainly been paying attention to this development. As far as marketing goes, car companies are typically quite conservative. Cars are ultimately supposed to objects of desire — emphasis on "objects." But cars are also brands, and brand are what most people develop relationships with. They like Toyotas, not Camrys. Models come and go, but makes endure (although they go away, too — just ask Pontiac and Saab lovers).
Where Lincoln is concerned, the brand needs to take center stage, as they current lineup of cars and SUVs isn't quite there yet, where the luxury or near-luxury market is concerned.
Will a sudden outbreak of virality get the industry to rethink its advertising ways? Probably not — it's sort of ironic that automakers have generated this much virality in such a short time.
But it's a start — and more than a good one.