What car brands can learn from Top Gear

All auto brands want to drive sales. But are they going about it in the right way?

I read an insight once, but it wasn’t very insightful. It claimed that now people turn to digital options when researching what new car to buy, rather than visiting dealerships, brands need to take ownership of these 'auto-shopping moments' to entice them in. The suggestions 'moments' included test drives, features and options and walk-throughs. It all seems a little patronising.


auto shopping moments
To me, this kind of thing is a regression in the understanding of communication within the industry, because this isn’t providing anything useful in driving sales for cars. However, people start using this type of insight as something to plan around. And, ultimately, it just raises more questions:
  1. How do you own it?
  2. How do you differentiate yourself if everyone must own it?
  3. Isn’t this the type of thing you’d stick in a brochure?
  4. How is this different to buying decisions in other categories?
The real problem it that every brand says they want to drive sales. Every response to brief comes back with efficiency – the most efficient buy being PPC. Bid on your brand term and the likelihood is that click will convert. It’s easy for these channels to claim conversion, but they might not actually be responsible for it – you're literally converting the converted. It’s a self-fulfilling, non-volume-driving prophecy. When you strip it back, PPC is a glorified Yellow Pages. What it really means is that, instead, we must appreciate communications planning and strategy.

What instigates the brand search?

Thanks to watching Top Gear and The Grand Tour, I know that, if only I was paid more, I'd buy the Alfa Romeo Giulia. In fact, I’d buy any Alfa Romeo. Those shows own a hell of a lot of Google moments because they feature test drives, talk about options and comment on the price. But that’s just the bones of it. They also make car talk humorous, real and aspirational all in one go. The reason they're so popular is because they put ‘people’ back into the moments.
For example, let's say consumers were concerned about boot space as a barrier to purchasing a Smart car. A Top Gear way of tackling this problem could be to see how many shoeboxes fit in the car as a random irreverent experiment. It’s this kind of angle and tone that adds personality while addressing a rational concern about space. And it’s actually doing a far more important job of emotionally connecting the consumer to the brand.
What I've come to discover is that brands like to box things up. Those Google moments are really all about consideration, but as soon as any organisation gets into consideration territory, they tend to make things pretty dull by trying to answer all the rational questions in car buying. Consideration also removes all accountability of scale under the guise of targeting and segmentation. But when showing driving activity, the content is underwhelming in a different way – it's just pictures of the car and a few bits of information. Top Gear and The Grand Tour fuse this very well. They don’t just show pictures, and they don’t just rattle through the specs. They have fun with it.

What about TV ads?

So why not just plough money into TV ads? Well, it certainly has an effect. A recent article on Forbes showed that TV advertising is still very important for car buyers. 
But what it further highlighted to me is the separation of awareness and consideration and assigning channels to each stage, eg only using digital for consideration. Effectively, this perpetuates boring content created by automotive brands on digital, and fuels generic advertising on TV. Car ads, like fragrance ads, are all exactly the same – a car driving on the roads of Italy in and out of tunnels. That isn’t what people are after.
I believe there's some power in the discipline of content marketing. It forces you to think about intricacies in messaging and making something compelling and entertaining. 

So what should brands be doing?

Mercedes has done a great job in the past few years with many of its digital campaigns, but its recent one, Grow Up, may now be my favourite. It makes the idea fun, edgy and inspiring, while just happening to drop in a few cars here and there.
VW's Made For Real Life campaign and Honda's The Other Side are also very entertaining, while remaining focused on the benefits of the product. Communication specialists can work out what needs to be said quite quickly and easily. Great communication requires an understanding of how you're going to deliver that message, and that's where the real creative skill lies.
What great campaigns and shows like Top Gear add is personality, answering the most important question: 'Do I like this car?' That is a moment that brands should and can realistically own. If brands go back to that, they should next be asking: 'How do I get people to like me?' And, all of a sudden, a brand is treating itself as an organic being, one that isn't static and stuck to the same old formulas and brand guidelines. It forces them to change their brand fortunes by adopting an attitude and changing who they are. Brands need to stop thinking they appeal to fictional consumers that don’t exist, or that by changing they will alientate their existing consumers. They need to throw their current brand guidelines out the window.