Once upon a time, most automotive advertising looked pretty similar. A white male behind the wheel, a winding road – through a desert, or a forest, or fringing a mountain – and plenty of mouth-watering shots of the chassis and interior. The ensemble shrieked sleekness, performance and status.
Occasionally there would be a funny, self-deprecating piece from VW about fuel economy and reliability, or a more safety-focused ad from Volvo, but by and large there was little new under the hood.
Today the landscape is different. Like every other sector, the auto industry is being disrupted by societal change. So what’s first on the minds of leading marques and their creatives right now? The shift to electric, perhaps?
The excitement factor
Thierry Lonziano, global marketing and communications director of Peugeot, says: “The first challenge for Peugeot is to demonstrate that ‘electric’ is not synonymous with ‘boring’. That’s what we’ve succeeded in doing with our new product and marketing strategy ‘Power of Choice’.”
The strategy does not steer away from aesthetics, handling and driving pleasure, but rather gives motorists the choice to pick their car before deciding on its engine type. “In that way, thanks to Peugeot, motorists don’t have to make a compromise between design and their convictions.”
Rémi Babinet, president and co-founder of Peugeot’s Paris-based agency BETC, confirms: “There is a challenge today with the shift to electric: how do we reassure people on autonomy, on the environmental impact of cars, how do we convince them that cars are still relevant in their lives and above all, as Thierry says, on the non-boring experience that electric cars from Peugeot are offering?”
He adds that the challenge is more strategic than creative. “What is at stake for traditional car makers is to take back the lead. It’s about their survival: most people think that tomorrow, the best cars will be produced by technology companies. Car makers need to reassure them.”
At the agency Serviceplan Campaign International, which works for BMW, managing partners Thomas Heyen and Markus Kremer have been addressing the electric issue since 2010, when the automaker launched its i-series with the fully electric i3 and i8 models. “It already feels like business as usual to us,” they state, in a joint mail. Rather than launching the concept of electric, they must now concentrate on individual models. “It’s like one big story in which each model is a new episode.”
From driving to mobility
Over at Renault, chief marketing officer François Renard says: “The biggest challenges for our creativity are not linked to how to communicate new technologies. They are about addressing how an automotive brand should show its understanding of people’s changing attitudes towards the car. Renault’s creativity will evolve from selling products to selling services. We want to develop creative work that is better at selling the brand experience, creating a global offer of products and services.”
He considers that creative will need to move “from making the car appealing as a physical object to demonstrating a more human form of mobility experience”.
At Renault’s agency, Publicis Conseil, CEO overseeing creativity Marco Venturelli uses the acronym CASE to sum up the trends impacting the sector: Connected, Autonomous, Shared and Electric.
“First, the digital revolution made it possible to introduce new technical features for more autonomous and connected cars. Then a societal revolution changed people’s relationship with their cars: while everyday life was once designed around the automobile, enormous challenges such as climate change have tempered this reality, which explains the increasing interest for electric cars. Finally, there is a revolution in the way people use cars.”
A new generation is less interested in owning cars than sharing them, he says, so the look of a car is less important than the time spent inside it. “We now value the experience more than the product, a change that Renault embraces perfectly.”
The Serviceplan team agrees that mobility is the new watchword for BMW, too. “People look for the same things as always: design, space, power, safety, fuel saving, price. They also look for a brand they trust. But there is a challenge we should have an eye on: the new generation does not look for cars, they look for mobility solutions – and buying a car is only one option.”
Swerving away from status
The portrayal of cars as status symbols – although by no means out of the picture – is fading too.
François Renard points out: “It has shifted from a predominant focus on seducing with the exterior design to the interior of the car – where the experience is most felt. Also, because they’re used to smart phones, apps and voice activation, people are increasingly looking at how these technologies can create new experiences when they are on the move. Finally, increased concern for the environment means materials, partnerships and the user’s impact are relatively new interests.”
Marco Venturelli cites the Renault Clio ad from this year as a campaign that presents the car “in an abstract way”, capturing the quality of the time spent within the vehicle.
One advertising executive who has been in conversations with Ford, among other players, mentions the experiential approach too. He proposes a scenario in which your electronic car key could provide access to a wider range of services – emergency breakdown assistance, for example – almost like another mobile device.
Thierry Lonziano of Peugeot confirms, “Customers are increasingly interested in messages about the connectivity of vehicles and the driving benefits that can bring. This is a communication challenge we also see in the electric market, alongside new issues like recharging and battery life. We need to adjust our communications to meet these needs, while driving pleasure remains at the core of our message.”
Rémi Babinet expands: “It’s up to us to develop new, positive scenarios in a context where cars are under attack. Electricity, for example, could make the car a symbol of freedom again, when you won’t be allowed in cities with petrol-fuelled cars anymore. But in these new scenarios there is still an essential expectation: entertainment.”
Cars, especially when they can drive themselves, are about to become rolling multiplex cinemas. “More and more people will buy a car based not only on its performance, but also on the size of its screens, on its connectivity, and on the access it provides to exclusive content.”
Equality, power – and speed
One thing you may have noticed is the gradual appearance of more women behind the wheel. The automakers and creatives we spoke to all said that their aim was not to portray equality, but reality – and they’d been doing so for many years. Their replies were versions of “it’s natural, not a forced message”.
Rémi Babinet of BETC gave one particular example. “For the launch of the new Peugeot 508 SW, we were looking for a professional stunt driver who would be able to torture-test the precision of the car, when we heard of San Yélamos. We were after a great driver, who just happened to be a woman. The good thing is – it made the film even more impactful.”
The various evolutions described above don’t mean we have to say goodbye to adrenaline rush images of cars whooshing down highways. Sometimes speed and performance are core elements of the brand, as with Renault’s Alpine cars. (François Renard points out that Renault is also heavily involved in Formula 1 racing.)
The BMW team at Serviceplan have a specific take on the issue: “Admittedly this is a very German view on the question: but as long the German Autobahn has no speed limit, power, performance and pleasure will play a big role for German automotive brands.”
There’s no reason electric cars shouldn’t share in the drama, though. Indeed, they have new attributes to show off, says Rémi Babinet. “Electric cars have a lot to offer: instant acceleration, smooth driving, silence… And when it comes to autonomous cars, there may also be a revival of more traditional attributes, like road handling. When the steering wheel retracts, you definitely want your car to hold the road perfectly. It’s an opportunity for car makers who have been communicating about this for a long time. Sometimes, your historical DNA is your best ally for embracing the future.”