Back to the Future… of Automotive Marketing
Like Marty McFly in the iconic Back to the Future saga, sometimes we have to look back at where we came from to understand the world today.
Marketing in the automotive industry has changed so much since its inception–from simple and informative ads about what cars are, to the social media ads we see today. Throughout that time, we experienced the first color print ads, TV ads, and the start of digital marketing. The way we market in the industry has also dramatically changed as we’ve experienced major events like the Great Depression and World War II.
Let’s take a drive through automotive marketing’s wild past.
The first patent for the automobile takes us to Europe in 1886, from the mind of Karl Benz. At the time, cars were very difficult to make, and even harder to sell.
The first car ads were very informative and targeted the benefits of using a car compared to a horse. They were surprisingly effective and sold more cars than expected – this advertisement lead to the sale of 21 cars the first year, an impressive number for a new invention.
The turn of the century brought simple ads about the car itself. Cars were advertised as a symbol of wealth due to high prices and limited supply. Long before radios and television sets were common in the average household, all ads were in print: newspapers, magazines, and brochures.
Then, in 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T and transformed car manufacturing. Suddenly, cars were available to more people.
As production increased, manufacturers realized the need for better advertising and started to use agencies to drive demand. Into the 1920s, the target shifted from information based advertising to consumer based, leading to advertisements with more emotional appeal. This included adding color to advertisements and adding people with the cars, making it easier to picture the car in their lives.
In 1922, radio ads made their way into households as the technology entered more and more homes. Almost a century later, this is still a popular and effective medium.
During this time, owning a car was still a symbol of wealth. When the stock market collapsed in 1929, the progression of vehicles into more homes halted. Manufacturers were forced to advertise to almost exclusively to individuals whose wealth survived the Great Depression.
During World War II, car manufacturers moved from commercial production to war production. Factories were transformed to provide supplies for the war effort, and vehicles and parts were primarily repurposed for the military.
At the end of the war, advertising focused on leisure and prosperity. The US experienced an economic boost, and pre-war production returned to produce goods. Then, in 1956, the US highway system was set in motion, encouraging long-range travel and a change to the rural/urban mix.
TV ads for dealerships really took off during the 50s. Increased competition prompted ads about reputation, selection, deals, and more to attract customers.
Printed car ads didn’t go away with new technology, however. Instead, they became bigger and more colorful to attract customers.
With the popularity of television and the growing number of brands available in the US, manufacturer branding became more innovative. In 1959, Volkswagen launched the “Think Small” campaign that lasted into the 60s. Named the best advertising campaign in the 20th century, it made a huge impact on both the automotive industry and the marketing industry. Rather than the loud, attention-grabbing antics of other campaigns, the campaign leveraged simplicity.
The 1970s saw major competition between imported cars and US manufacturers. Japanese car companies became some of the largest importers with vehicles from Toyota, Honda, and Nissan flooding the market. A lot of ads during this time used patriotism to appeal to buyers by including language like, “American.”
In the beginning of the 1980s, dealerships faced a lot of challenges with the economy and regulations, continuing into the 1990s. The 90s saw advances in technology in cars, which opened the door to new questions about safety and security.
During this time, TV ads were the main form of advertising along with magazines featuring new photography of vehicles and explaining new safety features.
The 21st century saw the launch of digital advertising. Google AdWords was released in 2000, and in 2005, Facebook published its first ad, leading to the social media marketing that we know today.
As the popularity of digital advertising exploded, regulations could barely keep up, until the 2010s, when data privacy concerns forced marketers to rethink how we use data and how well we actually know our customers. Marketing began to transition toward loyalty and shared interests, rather than blasting a singular message to anyone who could see it. Dealership customers were able to explore more options, check off their needs, and personalize their vehicles with trim levels and accessories to make it their own, all encouraged by new technology.
How dealerships sell and service cars and what consumers value shifted with the COVID-19 pandemic. Dealers now need to advertise how they do business and what options they offer to meet consumers’ expectations of an even more digital experience.
And with inventory severely lacking, real-time ads for current vehicles and opportunities to pre-order are carrying the day.
Automotive marketing has come a long way, and the changes aren’t slowing. It’s more important than ever to keep up with trends and move forward with a digital advertising strategy to survive whatever situation history throws your way—no flux-capacitor-DeLorean needed.