Ford, Fiat and Honda: An Automotive Content Marketing Test Drive

A finger choosing options on a car's infotainment system

In this column we review content marketing programs by having our “drivers” consume content and evaluate its effectiveness at shaping positive opinions about a brand or inspiring engagement and action. What better way to kick things off than with a few automotive brands?

Turning someone loose in a showroom is one thing. It’s quite another to set millennials free inside a content-rich, multichannel brand experience. After all, according to a report by Forbes and Elite Daily, less than 3% of millennials rely on print ads and commercials for information from car brands. However, 33% of them will use social media for reviews from their peers in search of information they trust and actual, real-life experiences with cars of interest. We asked three millennials, each at different stages of a typical customer journey, to pick a car (for our purposes we chose Ford, FIAT and Honda) and develop a feel for the brand through its content, and then for the car itself.

The process and findings were revealing:

Ryan Hecht, Age 26, Ford Fiesta

On the Web
The product page is surprisingly utilitarian given the car’s future-forward design. The leading carousel of hero images touts a mysterious International Engine of the Year Award with no “learn more” click thru and a sleepy photo of a parked car. Largely, the page dedicates real estate to garage-talk performance indicators and flashy design elements. If you’re like me and not a car person, a bulleted list of engine specs and “side rocker molding” aren’t a winning value proposition.

Tools and Third Party Content
I’m most impressed with Ford’s third-party comparison tool, which allows you to weigh features against the competition. Fiesta more than holds its own versus higher-priced options from MINI and FIAT, but this valuable content is buried under a “more tools” sidebar. Adding user reviews would be a plus for the millennial crowd.

The Ford Social site is a well-hidden hub for Ford fans to interact. After I sign up, I can post text, images and videos and tag a specific Ford make and model. The homepage aggregates these posts in a colorful but messy tile format, and users can choose to explore content per vehicle. This is a great concept, but it feels so far removed from the brand. If Ford isn’t going to integrate this user-generated content across channels—specifically product pages—it just feels like a conversation at the kid’s table.

Ford absolutely nails Twitter handles dedicated to their most popular vehicles…the account encourages engagement and reposts followers’ travel photos and plans.

Instagram and Twitter
Instagram delivers ad-quality vehicle shots and amusing images of old Ford models on #throwbackthursday. Twitter followers can stay current on Drive Green initiatives and live insider tours via Periscope. But in general there’s very little playful interaction; this is a museum, not a place to hang out.

On the plus side, Ford absolutely nails Twitter handles dedicated to their most popular vehicles. The bio on Fiesta’s Twitter profile—“Because life’s too short to stay in one place.”—is catchy and sets the mood; the account encourages engagement and reposts followers’ travel photos and plans.

Showroom and Test Drive
The lively Twitter profile aligns beautifully with the thrill of driving the car. The Fiesta is deceptively quick, with exceptionally tight handling. It’s adequately comfortable for two, although I can’t speak for the salesman crammed into the backseat. The customizable ambient lighting and hair-raising Sound Symposer exhaust system are features that probably deserve a bigger online presence.

A Missed Opp?
After the test drive, the salesman told me about Fiesta’s popular international car club. This feels like a content gold mine. Yes, Ford understands that millennials are nomadic, but we’re also communal. I’d love to see Ford create a home for drivers to share how the Fiesta fits into that adventurous spirit and tie it to the product page. Overall there’s healthy potential for the brand to show—not tell—the Fiesta’s attractive character.

Dioni Wise, Age 28, FIAT 500L

FIAT. It’s a foreign word to me—not just a foreign car. The Italian brand hardly comes to my American mind when thinking of the latest automotive offerings. While exploring its social media platforms and website, I became more familiar with the brand, the flagship 500 series and FIAT’s strong connection to its home country. I didn’t fall in love with the brand just from venturing into its online space because the content didn’t fully resonate with me. But I became very fond of the brand after taking a pleasant test drive and receiving attentive customer service. If the online experience were as tailor-made as the actual test drive, then FIAT might better reach buyers like me.

I liked the “FIAT eSexy Savings” infographic on Pinterest. The image boasts the benefits of owning an electric car. Savings are, indeed, sexy to this young adult burdened by student loans. The infographic mentions that I could save enough money on gas to change my wardrobe—maybe even get a few Italian designer pieces. The witty way in which the infographic tackles what could be a boring subject endeared me to the brand.

Elsewhere in Social
I expected more helpful and witty information on other social channels. I was disappointed. There are lots of images—beautiful ones—of the car and Italy, but that was about it.

If the online experience were as tailor-made as the actual test drive, then FIAT might better reach buyers like me.

Email and Alerts
FIAT gets a bit more creative with its “Countdown to X” campaign in which you can sign up to receive 26 daily updates until the release of the all-new 2015 FIAT 500X. FIAT introduces a new feature with each letter of the alphabet (A is for all-wheel drive, and so forth). The images are visually striking, but the content doesn’t compel me to share the images or learn more about the car.

Showroom and Test Drive
After visiting the dealership and driving a 500L, I was excited to learn more about the car and the brand. The friendly sales rep didn’t hover over me or spend too much time trying to tell me about all of the great features. He showed me. He pointed out several features that appealed to my tastes, noted subtle nuances in the Italian design and seemed to answer my questions honestly. I ended up liking the FIAT 500L very much and almost didn’t want to say “Ciao.”

A Missed Opp?
The offline experience exceeded my expectations, especially after failing to connect with the brand on its online portals. I can’t speak for all millennials, but most of my friends and I enjoy art, frugal living and traveling. To better engage the millennial audience, I suggest FIAT provide personalized content experiences that involve those topics.

Nicole Esplin, Age 23, Honda Civic

Brand Affinity and Facebook
When I think Honda Civic, I hear the song “Where Is the Love,” by the Black Eyed Peas, and remember being 13 and attending my first concert. It was “The Black Eyed Peas Honda Civic Tour.”

As I clicked through the brand’s web and social pages, nothing caught my attention until I spotted a post for the “Honda Stage” Facebook page with an image of a music festival, which brought back memories of that first concert. Honda still sponsors tours with the Civic, in addition to featuring playlists, concert updates, sharing pictures from festivals and promoting giveaways on its “Honda Stage” Facebook page.

On the brand’s Civic-branded Facebook page, the posts range from “selfie” contest promotions featuring people in their Civics, to safety posts targeting buyers with families. When a page becomes so cluttered with posts for different target audiences, it’s hard for each user to navigate, browse and find what interests them.

When a page becomes so cluttered with posts for different target audiences, it’s hard for each user to navigate, browse and find what interests them.

Showroom and Test Drive
At the Honda dealership, I was greeted with enthusiasm, but also with a bit of skepticism. It was obvious the salesman was a bit wary of a 23-year-old being able to afford a $24,000 car.

I was bombarded with questions about whether I’d have someone helping me pay for it. The floor manager did stop by to shake my hand, letting me know he’d be happy to talk with my father and me sometime soon. That’s when I gave up on the idea that I could afford to buy this car myself.

A Missed Opp?
I understand that the car may appeal to various audiences. It would be great for the brand to enable segmentation, not just in emails but perhaps using Facebook for families, baby boomers and the parents of millennials. Instagram would be ideal for young professionals.

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