Times have changed for the world’s carmakers. Renault is investing in aeronautics, while Audi promotes alpine research and water sports. For today’s auto advertisers, preaching a good cause may be every bit as important as pitching the product itself.
At the Cannes Film Festival this year, a fleet of about 100 Renault vehicles will drive celebrities to and from the famous red carpet. Across the sea, Chrysler is the official sponsor of Hollywood's Academy Awards.
Mindful of the publicity these events can bring them, car manufacturers are keen to glean some glamour from the film industry, to sex up their sedans and SUVs in the hopes of sparking the desire of would-be consumers. Star power, however, isn't the only bright idea carmakers are employing to attract increasingly conscientious clients.
"Car spots used to be the spoiled kids of the advertising world, because of their creativity and their ability to make people dream. Today, this is far from being the case," says Eric Hélias, creative director at Young & Rubicam.
Today, automobile advertising faces increasing environmental, social and legal pressures, which explains why car manufacturers are desperately trying to find new ways of communicating with consumers. As a way to promote the product, "positive" values – family, sports, environment – have trumped the pure pleasures of driving or the thrills of motorsports. Audi, for example, has decided to invest in "clean" sports like sailing. In 2007 it established its own circuit called the Audi Med Cup. The German company is also a partner of the International Alpine Ski Federation. Renault has turned to sponsorship of British sailor Ellen MacArthur, whose image has even been used in some of the carmaker's commercials.
There may be a downside to all this "greenwashing," according to Arnaud Dupui-Castérès, chairman of Vae Solis Corporate. "The problem is that by putting so much stress on these issues," he says, "car manufacturers have in fact reinforced the idea that cars are a source of pollution." Carmakers, in other words, haven't made their products any greener. But they do seem to have raised environmental awareness.
"The car industry is under scrutiny and its values are being challenged," says Christophe Lafarge, cofounder of Agence H, a company that handles Citroën's budget. "This phenomenon is linked to the fact that car buyers are more aware today of environmental questions and of the world around them."
Social media platforms and the Internet are filled with blogs dedicated to car advertising. These Web sites often point out the inconsistencies between the carmakers' promises and reality. "Just as it used to be with the issue of automobile safety, manufacturers have no choice but to optimize their processes," says Cédric Journel, the marketing and public relations manager of Škoda (Volkswagen Group) in France.
Car manufacturers are being forced to take a second look at how and what they communicate. "This is exactly what we did for Citroën and its C4, through the creative technology concept," says Christophe Lafarge. "Our strategy has nothing to do with sociology. It is instead focused on products, hard facts and figures. Consumers are interested in car advertising only if it puts forward the industry's green innovations in a creative way."
Communication strategies are especially tricky for auto manufacturers since buyers are sensitive to both environmental and price issues. "Authorities prevent us from directly associating cars with ecology. So in order to promote our Greenline vehicles, we have chosen to make our fuel consumptions and CO2 emissions quite visible in our commercials," says Škoda's Cédric Journel.
Putting those consumption numbers in bold print is one of the few market strategies on which carmakers seem to agree. Other than that, however, it's anybody's guess how best to advertise automobiles at a time when consumers may have already had their fill of environmental commercials.
Read the original article in French.
Photo – Jose Felipe Ortega