The storytelling behind automotive brand partnerships

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There are few industries facing as much disruption as the auto industry. With the rise of connected cars, a shift towards shared mobility and advancements in autonomous and electrified vehicles, most car industry leaders believe the sector is poised for more change in the next few years than it has seen in the last 50.

One constant among the flux though is auto brands continuing to invest in brand partnerships to turbo charge their marketing, explore new territories and draw in a different audience. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find an industry as pervasive across the partnership landscape as automobile manufacturers.

With collaborations ranging from arts to alcohol, to music, sport, and plenty more in between, auto brands are making the most of these powerful alliances to showcase their latest vehicles, reach new customers and become part of the conversation.

Brand partnerships are the perfect platform to extend beyond auto geek territory and cross into the lifestyle space; the challenge is that they only work if there is a clear strategy to bring them to life.

The right fit

The potential of brand partnerships is hugely exciting, especially the thought of being connected with a ‘cool’ brand which takes your brand into new territories. But if the brand fit isn’t authentic and there is no shared purpose, potential customers and the media will be instantly turned off.

The first question that needs to be asked and answered robustly before discussions about a brand partnership get too far down the track is ‘why?’

It’s always the audience that matters the most and the last thing you want is people talking about your partnership for all the wrong reasons. Reinforcing the why through storytelling lays the foundations for a truly successful campaign, but without storytelling, a brand partnership will just be a dull badging exercise and an expensive mistake.

We’ve been working on brand partnerships for auto brands for more than 15 years and we think the industry is one of the best when it comes to understanding the importance of using content to build the story and communicate the rationale.

Storytelling is key

From one-off media partnerships to celebrity collaborations, through to multi-year deals, once the contract has been signed, the real work starts, crafting stories that make the partnership meaningful.

One of the most counterintuitive brand partnerships from recent years, which used a clever content and storytelling strategy, was Nissan’s sponsorship of the British Olympic Association and British Paralympics Association. Injecting humour into its marketing and advertising around the sponsorship, it pranked athletes at the kitting out ceremony ahead of the Rio Olympics and continued with a range of tongue-in-cheek activities which allowed it to cut through the clutter and drive real brand impact.

While the worlds of auto and fashion might seem disparate at first glance, the two have been collaborating since the mid-1960s and these types of partnership are stronger than ever. Mercedes Benz Fashion Week immediately jumps to mind but there are many other collaborations which have seen cars and fashion becoming fast intertwined. Fiat has used fashion thinking to validate the Fiat 500’s style positioning through collaborations with the likes of fashion big-hitters such as Gucci. Fiat went to great lengths to build Gucci’s identity into the 500, beyond just a badge, and carried this through the marketing, with an eye-catching short film by music/fashion director Chris Sweeney showing Gucci accessories – high heels and handbags – being transformed into car parts.

The publishing world too can be rich territory for smart auto brand unions. Earlier this year, Porsche partnered with The Economist to promote its new Panamera, the only sports car in the luxury sedan segment, to high net worth individuals in the North American market. The campaign explored the power of two interconnecting ideas across the worlds of architecture, gastronomy, sport and motoring, mirroring how the Panamera blends the comfort and design of a luxury vehicle with the speed, power and performance of a sports car. TVC created four stunning films to show how this phenomenon is changing everything from cityscapes to cars, and from kitchens to basketball courts. Using metaphors to highlight the mix of sports car and luxury credentials, the stories told through the films talked to the audience in an unexpected and memorable way.

The long haul

The auto industry has never been afraid to commit to long-term brand partnerships, showing its dedication and loyalty to particular sectors. Sailing has long been seen as a natural fit for auto brands because of the parallel links to technology, innovation, speed and endurance, and it’s this sport which seems to attract some of the most enduring partnerships.

Storytelling is more important than ever to maintain the momentum over the years of these more enduring alliances.

In 2015, Land Rover inked a two-year deal with Ben Ainslie Racing in a bid to win the 35th America’s Cup in 2017. Land Rover spent two years working closely with the BAR design and engineering teams in the hope of bringing home the oldest sporting trophy in the world. We helped tell the story of the unique partnership between these two iconic British brands, with the focus of the story on British innovation, and we ensured stories landed regularly in the general news, sport and lifestyle space.

The collaboration has been such a success for both sides that Land Rover recently confirmed it has signed a new deal for the 36th America’s Cup.

As the auto industry faces some bumpy roads ahead, media partnerships will continue to abound and be a crucial part of the marketing mix. By the end of this year, when more than 80 million new cars will have rolled off the assembly line around the globe, there is no doubt a large chunk of sales will be attributed to the powerful effect of brilliant brand partnerships.

James Myers is managing director of communications agency TVC Group.

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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