CAMPAIGN-I: Spotlight on: internet joint ventures - Rivals cut out the middlemen with joint marketing websites. Will consumers have faith in the impartiality of these sites? Alasdair Reid writes

Joint industry marketing initiatives are, to say the least, often

fraught with difficulties. If a camel is a racehorse designed by a

committee, then just think how much potential there is for the creation

of a dog's breakfast when those committee members are ferocious rivals.

Rivals such as Ford, DaimlerChrysler and General Motors, for instance.

Or, staying with a transport theme, ferocious rivals such as British

Airways, KLM, Air France, Alitalia and a handful of other European

airlines.



Last week, the airlines unveiled revamped plans to develop a joint sales

and marketing initiative called the Online Travel Portal; and although

the car manufacturers - which are already joint venture partners in

Covisint, an online procurement and information network for their

manufacturing partners and suppliers - were more coy about their

intentions, they are also thought to be bringing forward plans for a

consumer marketing portal.



Both groups are looking for agencies to handle consumer advertising

campaigns.



Which will be nice for the ultimate pitch winners. But will they

struggle to make sense of the briefs they are given? In short, do these

initiatives make any sort of sense?



On the face of it, these are two very different initiatives. One

apparent motivation behind the Covisint portal (and plans are in their

early stages as yet) is a desire to reinforce the industry's public

relations efforts.



But it is assumed that it will also have a more direct consumer

marketing role - news, features, road-test reviews of the products. It

could look like an online magazine. Which, in turn, would locate it near

the front line as far as direct sales are concerned.



The Online Travel Portal will be unashamedly commercial - and that will

not surprise those who have argued all along that travel will ultimately

prove one of the most fruitful e-commerce sectors. How they share the

same platform, though, will be interesting.



On the face of it, we have to assume that retail will be a minor

consideration with the car portal. The car industry - manufacturers

themselves as well as intermediaries - have made heavy weather of

selling directly to consumers via the web. Or even generating sales

leads, come to that. One of the main reasons why that is so is that they

are, according to one observer, scared to death of alienating their

dealership networks.



So it's going to be an exercise in vanity publishing, isn't it? As one

source puts it: 'It could look really lame and apologetic or it could be

sexy. It could be a dull corporate facade with options to click

immediately through to Ford.com or whatever. It's up to them, obviously,

but you'd think they have some ambitions for it if they're contemplating

a consumer campaign. I don't think anyone should be surprised that major

manufacturers are toying with this idea.'



Could this sort of development worry media owners either on- or

offline?



For example, media owners such as Emap, which has a number of automotive

media properties. Tom Toumazis, the managing director of Emap

Advertising, comments: 'This isn't new. We've seen a number of FMCG

companies developing content on their sites in the hope of building a

regular audience. It hasn't worked. The big question is whether this is

presented as a public relations exercise or as a media brand. Can

consumers rely on getting impartial advice from a site funded by car

manufacturers? When they buy Car magazine, they know they are getting

impartial advice. Will this be seen as a media property? If so, then

good luck to them. But it's a very competitive world and this is not

their core area of expertise.'



On the other hand, perhaps there's more to all of this than meets the

eye. One source close to the car industry certainly thinks so: 'Yes,

much of this doesn't add up. In both instances we're talking about

competitors coming together and, of course, your first instinct is that

it can't possibly work. But you have to scratch the surface and in both

cases you'll find e-commerce if you do. Competitors are coming together

because they're preparing to do something radical and they want safety

in numbers. In both cases their agenda is all about challenging the

existing systems of distribution. They want to cut out the middleman -

agents in one case and dealerships in the other. The car site may look

like a lot of things - for instance, an online media property and a

search engine that will allow you to compare specifications. But

distribution is the agenda. They're looking to the long term and I

wouldn't underestimate what they're doing.'



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