It was ever thus for car companies: whether to win hearts and minds with glossy, soft-sell brand marketing, or to aggressively target those in the market for a new vehicle with eye-catching deals.
Last month, that tension came to a head once more as GM spectacularly fell out with Facebook over the unwillingness of the latter to allow more 'high-impact' ad formats. The question of how to use Twitter has proved equally tricky for automotive marketers.
Despite plenty of interest in the automotive sector, consumer engagement with brands' UK Twitter feeds is relatively disappointing. Big names such as Toyota, Renault, Citroën and Volkswagen are followed by fewer than 10,000 Twitter users, with only Mercedes-Benz surpassing the 30,000 mark. Moreover, most feeds have become a combination of marketing, PR announcements and customer-service messages.
In an effort to boost its following, Korean marque Kia has launched a @KiaUK feed, which showcases the quirky musings of a car character based on its Cee'd model. Those 'following the car' will be treated to irreverent comments such as: 'In this world there are two types of people. Those that wear latex gloves to fill up and those that don't.'
Phil Goodman, managing director at Bullet Social, the agency that devised the Kia strategy, says there is potential to improve brand perception by being 'fun'.
'Every other car brand has approached Twitter in the same way, and they have all achieved broadly the same results,' he explains. 'We feel there is scope for a brand to achieve so much more by approaching it differently and creating engaging content that people want to follow.'
Kia's UK marketing director, Lawrence Hamilton (see below) admits the brand is 'prepared to fail' with the trial, a statement that reveals not only the lack of confidence car marketers feel when dealing with Twitter, but also the platform's perceived lack of importance compared with more traditional channels.
Such an attitude is questioned by Ben Jones, European head of technology at creative agency AKQA, who argues that the potential for social advocacy on sites such as Twitter and Facebook is all the more important for big-ticket items such as cars.
'Social is integral to businesses, and it can be even more detrimental if it goes wrong,' he says. 'So to dip your toe in is probably not the best way. With high-value purchases, people need more endorsements and seek out more reviews, so if brands really use the communities, it can sway the choice in their direction even more. If I tell my friends about a brand, it's because I like my friends, not because I like the brand.'
A marque determined to be a leader in the social space is Mercedes-Benz, which boasts the most UK Twitter followers of its official account. The manufacturer has hired both internally and externally - bringing in digital agency Holler - to beef up its approach to social media.
Its Twitter breakthrough has been helped by a conscious decision to target younger consumers, including through sponsorship properties in fashion and motorsport. It has also used above-the-line marketing to encourage digital interaction, such as its 'Escape the map' ad campaign, in which consumers were asked to help a character escape a virtual-reality world.
Mercedes-Benz UK marketing director David George says the brand has succeeded by being 'personable and personal', creating a 'true collaboration' between classic marketing and PR. 'We believe our success is down to the natural interest people have in such an iconic brand, especially through social-media channels, which allow users to get closer to that brand,' he adds. 'Our philosophy is to add value, excite and engage our audience, being as open and transparent as possible.'
Despite the determination to solve the Twitter conundrum, Honda's lead UK marketer, Martin Moll (right), agrees that most brands remain in a 'state of confusion'.
His brand has taken a fairly classic approach, using its Twitter feed to promote campaigns and events, as well as attempting to respond to any Honda-related comments from tweeters. The only way forward, Moll argues, is to continue promoting the marque's products and content through Twitter, without overburdening followers with a 'monologue'.
Moll is sceptical about the race to acquire followers, arguing that it is better to have a smaller, but more engaged, following.
'We don't have an internal target for the number of followers,' he says. 'Who knows what the right number is? If people follow, we must be doing something right. But if that initial reason to follow fades, then the relationship becomes passive.'
For all the comments around 'engagement' and 'conversation', it is rather more difficult to find opinions on a specific use for Twitter by automotive brands. Both Moll and Jones cite the potential for allowing consumers to feel part of the creative output, such as asking followers to contribute to the design of a new model.
Clear Twitter strategies in the automotive sector remain few and far between. The urge to dip toes grows ever stronger, without any firm sense of what can be achieved on Twitter – or even what constitutes a success.
How had Kia approached Twitter?
We never really had a Twitter account before. The person who did it left, and that was that. We've not gone into Twitter for the sake of it, so we did a review to work out what role it should have for us. Convention would say that it revolves around customer service or PR, but in reality, Twitter users often follow people such as celebrities for entertainment reasons.
Why choose the character-led approach?
We don't have huge problems with customer service in the UK. There is still a role for PR, but that is a small, almost B2B audience; it doesn't generate interest in the brand.
The question is how to entertain and create interest – a Twitter feed that people will want to follow. We don't have a big personality, such as a Sir Richard Branson or Sir Alan Sugar, so we must make the car itself do the talking.
The car has a chance to talk about what is topical, including sponsorship properties such as Euro 2012, and it can be fun or cynical, which fits in with Kia's position of being 'playfully provocative'. It's fun – it's clearly not a hard sell.
How will you judge its success?
It might fall flat on its face – it is a trial – but the benefit of Twitter is that it's not the most expensive platform with which to experiment. The ROI with Twitter is completely questionable. If I spend £20,000, can I expect £20,000 in car sales? It's not all that measurable.
If it's successful, then of course we'll keep doing it. We could expand it, as we have a dozen cars, each with its own personality.
If it's not successful, then we'll learn what to do and what not to do next time.
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk