Repainting the lines: the art of automobile marketing

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I have been a closet fan of Will Gompertz, the BBC arts editor, for some time now. So I was lucky to be able to see him talk, in all his effervescent glory, at a conference recently. He spoke about how, in challenging times like these, faced with the prospect of robots taking our jobs, we need to think like artists to survive.

Gompertz took us through an inspirational art history lesson, which illustrated that the artists who had not only survived, but thrived, were those who challenged the status quo. Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Bridget Riley, Damien Hirst, Ai Wei Wei. Artists who introduced cubism, public toilets, optical illusion, formaldehyde and social activism into art. Artists who have rewritten the rules of their time and in doing so have achieved great fame and in some cases great fortune too.

Put cynically and simplistically, isn’t that what we are meant to be achieving in our industry for brands? So maybe what works for artists work for us too?

In some cases it already has. Dove broke every rule of the beauty industry by, rather than applauding perfection, celebrating real women’s bodies in all their shapes, sizes and imperfections and became one of the great marketing success stories of recent time.

But in some sectors, notably the car industry, there are very few rule breakers. Buying a car is a big decision and predictably there’s a powerful gravitational pull towards ‘safe’ marketing. Cue gorgeous new car, in optimal colourway snaking its way down a closed German highway: gorgeous and intelligent looking designers in hi-tech studio: slow caress of a camera over gorgeous car interior/exterior.

But this sort of safe marketing is never going to drive a step change for your brand. To fundamentally shift attitudes and make people look at things differently, we need to think like artists and break rules. The biggest rule in car marketing is that the major starting point, the thing around which everything revolves, must be the car.

At Red Bee we break this rule every time we work with a car brand because we believe the only way you’re going to connect with an audience is by focusing your conversation around their interests, not yours.

So when Hyundai asked us to do a product demo, we dropped the homogenous interior panning shot and instead created a film that people would actually remember. We turned the Hyundai showroom into a sitcom complete with a hapless car salesman and villainous car buyers, sneaking away product points to a chuckling audience along the way.

Honda similarly could have simply followed the rules and demoed the newly minted, sportier Honda civic Type R with a traditionally sexy, sporty, car film. But Martin Moll, previously marketing director for Honda Europe, had a more humble understanding of his brand in relation to the audience, which was the key to his success.

He recognised that the brand’s starting points ('We are a global mobility player. We’re the world’s largest engine manufacturer') were not going to excite the audience and create the change of attitude he was seeking. Instead he wanted to connect on a human level and attract people with Honda’s spirit of innovation and imagination. By inviting audiences to ‘Type R’ and becoming part of the narrative of two intriguing and exciting story lines, Honda engaged and entertained their audience in a truly memorable way.

But if it’s advertising rules we’re concerned with, the meeting of automotive and sponsorship advertising is surely at the apex. When we were working with Nissan on their sponsorship of Team GB and Paralympics GB in Rio last year, we set out to break every rule we could think of. We dispensed with charming the talent (instead opting to mercilessly prank them – they loved it), we took the banal good luck messages head on (using Sir Chris Hoy to overdub a generic message of good fortune with the relevant athlete’s name) and we placed product in a way you’ve never seen before (asking heptathlete Katarina Johnson Thompson to name her dogs ‘Niss and Leaf’ and Kat Copeland to install airbags in her rowing boat). The athletes had so much fun they wholeheartedly joined in; gymnast Max Whitlock even took a selfie, making the 'N for Nissan’ sign at the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio.

The campaign allowed Nissan to connect authentically with athletes and audiences in the same way that the artists Will Gompertz talked about caught people’s imaginations with their fresh thinking and unflinching honesty in the face of the established protocols of their world.

So I’d like to propose a new rule. Think like an artist, paint outside the lines and fame and fortune will surely follow.

Kath Hipwell is head of content strategy at content and design agency Red Bee.

This article was originally published in The Drum Network's Auto Special. Please contact naomi.taylor@thedrum.com for more details or to receive a copy.

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