At first glance, 2014 looks like a banner year for car sales. Automotive information site Edmunds.com predicts 16.4 million new cars will be sold, the highest single-year sales total since 2009.
But automakers shouldn't activate the cruise control just yet. Edmunds also says 2014 will witness the slowest year-to-year growth since 2009, because the economy hasn't improved enough to impact the hardest-hit groups: young people, lower income households, and the business sector.
That means automotive marketers must connect with a prospective buyer's wants and needs and deliver a credible value proposition in one fell swoop. That's like accelerating from zero to 60 in five seconds.
I took a quick peek under the hoods of a few automakers to see if their website experiences matched what their taglines promised. (A quick caution flag: I drive a BMW M3, and my strategic communications firm represents MINI, so I excluded both brands from my test drive.)
A Sea of Orange
As a rabid NFL fan, I'm quite familiar with the truck commercials that bombard TV viewers during timeouts. They all seem to evoke the same themes: family, patriotism and performance. Ford Explorer's tagline is "Over the river OR through the woods." But its website is so bland, and the orange Explorer on the homepage is so ugly, that I didn't feel like trying either route.
There's also a total disconnect between the off-road experience implied in the brand promise and the online information provided. In fact, only one of six videos on the site even mentioned off-roading. And it was painfully boring. When it comes to making the tagline come alive on the website, the Explorer is anything but dynamic.
Although the Toyota Tundra is a heavy-duty pickup truck, the photo on Toyota's home page makes it look more like an SUV. In fact, it could be the Explorer's doppelganger. The trucks not only look alike, they're also displayed in that same, ugly Brady Bunch retro orange color from the 1970s.
The tagline on the Tundra's homepage reads: "Tow. Haul. Build anything." Not exactly memorable, is it?
But when you click beyond the homepage, the Tundra hits you with another tagline: "Work ready. Family tough." That's one tagline too many. Are we building, towing, towing a family, or what?
Rounding out the truck category is the Chevy Silverado, parked alongside the exact same beach/lake scene as the Explorer and Tundra! Truck marketers must not get out very much. The Silverado's tagline reads: "Find new roads." Original, isn't it?
The entire truck category needs construction on their marketing roads. They look alike. They sound alike. And none of the brands I inspected delivered on their original brand promise. These trucks are a wreck.
A Penny For Your Thoughts
Smart Car is far and away the coolest, savviest and most navigable of the websites I reviewed. The brand delivered on its tagline: "Not just any smart. My smart."
Here's why: On one area of the site, visitors are invited to select what type of driver they are: "joy rider," "big wheeler," "pace car," "bumper humper," or "human odometer."
Intrigued by "bumper humper," I chose that profile. The site informed me that because I use my car to commute to work, I'm always in a hurry (hence the humping), and I travel 44 miles a day--and with gas priced at $3.88 a gallon in my zip code--I should be driving their coupe.
Smart Car tailored this experience for me. They made it My Smart.
Kia promised me it had "The Power to Surprise." The website did back that up to an extent, but the cars didn't surprise me. They were rather bland. And the website itself is traditional and boring, with all of the tabs, columns and corporate information one would expect from, say, IBM. What did surprise me was the list of awards won by Kia cars, from Motor Trend, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Cars.com, and others.
Awards are impressive, but the "Power to Surprise" is confusing. I couldn't find any information about the powerful acceleration of any of Kia's models. And, there is nothing surprising at all about the car's look or design.
Maserati's marketing gurus must know I long to be behind the wheel of their car. Why else would its tagline be: "The absolute opposite of ordinary"? That struck a nerve with me.
Maserati's website isn't ordinary. But, I wouldn't call it extraordinary either. There's a neat compilation of company history, various makes and models, and racing heritage. But when I screeched to a halt to inspect the cool-looking Granturismo, I clicked on a rather odd video. It began by categorizing other high-end luxury brands as nothing more than "….quiet motors sitting atop look-alike boxes." The video reveals a stark white room filled with tiny motors, perched on top of little boxes and humming silently. I guess they're supposed to depict Maserati's competitors, but it sure doesn't work for me.
The Maserati website is a classic example of overcomplicating a very simple message. A luxury car should be sold as a luxury experience. The website should be elegant in its simplicity. The car's beauty should speak for itself. Most importantly, a glamour icon does not bash the competition.
A New Lemon Law
Based upon my experiences, I'd say 2014 might be an even bumpier ride for car markers than even Edmunds suggests. In fact, I'd suggest the AAA, or someone, create a new lemon law that fines automakers who promise one thing in their taglines but deliver a very different experience online.