Cars.com looks to become the ‘Tinder of cars’ with new brand campaign and web interface

Cars.com has been around for two decades, helping connect dealers with potential buyers, but now they want that relationship to be a bit more intimate. The website has been updated to reflect a new way of doing business, and one that mirrors dating apps.

Calling it “Tinder for cars,” the company’s marketers are helping consumers to connect with their perfect car match and promoting it with an extensive new campaign done in collaboration with R/GA Chicago.

“This brand relaunch is all around the strategy of creating car chemistry,” said Cars.com chief marketing officer Brooke Skinner Ricketts. “Thinking about real estate…people are constantly cruising Zillow or Redfin. We think car shopping has the potential to be that way. We also believe that everyone has the ability to be swept off their feet by a car.”

The company worked with R/GA to develop the ‘We Met on Cars.com’ campaign based on the premise from that when you meet a happy couple the first question you always ask is 'where did you two meet?' “In this case the happy couple is the owner and their car and they met on Cars.com,” added Skinner Ricketts.

The campaign highlights the new website redesign, which goes beyond the usual car search features of make and model.

“The challenge is how to make the car buying experience as fulfilling as buying a new house or new dress. How can we improve that experience?” asked Skinner Ricketts.

She pointed out that there are over 17m cars sold a year in the US and 222 million drivers. Plus, the average price of a new car is $36,000, so it's a big investment for most people and not something they take lightly.

However, the experience of shopping for a car leaves much to be desired. Cars.com did some research and found that the majority of people would rather do almost anything else than shop for cars. “They'd rather clean toilets, they'd rather go to the DMV, they'd rather have an extended conversation with their mother in-law that they don't like, they’d rather go to jury duty,” said Skinner Ricketts, adding that consumers want personal recommendations and the curation of Netflix and Spotify, plus personal reviews like on Airbnb, plus ratings like they see on Rotten Tomatoes or Yelp.

What gives Cars.com an advantage over newer entrants to the online car buying market is that the company brings with it 20 years of depth and data. The site sees 400m visits a year, working with 20,000 car dealers and dealer franchises. On any given day Cars.com has around 5m car listings and 6m reviews from an in-house editorial team of experts, plus reviews from dealers and consumers.

“The role of the site (when it launched) was to digitize classifieds for newspapers – to provide an index, to provide a way for people to search for cars,” said Skinner Ricketts.

“That was a long time ago, and in the technology business, being a 20-year-old company is something of an Achilles heel.”

She and Tony Zolla, Cars.com chief product officer, came to Cars.com with a remit to reinvent and evolve not only the user experience but the brand. The new website relaunch and campaign are the outcome of two years of work, where they worked to make the experience better for shoppers, and bring trust back into car shopping, essentially making it a contemporary retail experience.

“When you think about shopping for clothes, shopping for a house, shopping for just about anything, technology has done its part to improve that experience. That’s not so in the automotive industry, so that's the opportunity we see,” said Skinner Ricketts. “We were once focused on just listings, now we're really focused on redefining the future of automotive retail.”

Designing a better experience through auto dating

For the relaunch, Cars.com depended on the years of data plus new research to improve the process. The national survey found some interesting, and very detailed, statistics, like millennials are the least likely to be ‘slow and steady’ drivers, whereas Gen Z is spending more time behind the wheel for work; that men are more likely to personalize their car with a political bumper sticker while women are more likely to personalize with school bumper stickers; and minivan and SUV owners describe themselves as family-first, sedan and pickup truck owners are loyal.

One of the biggest, and most telling statistics they found was that 70% of car shoppers, when they start the process, don't know what make and model they want, and that most sites don’t address that.

“The way the industry works, it assumes you know exactly what you want,” stated Zolla. It’s a lot to wade through if you don't really know what you want. If you make a wrong decision, it's difficult to change. It can be a scary journey for most people.”

So, Cars.com designed a car quiz based on preferences, like dating sites do. It takes user preferences that the car shoppers offers up and “combines it with the 20 years of internal data, along with sentiment analysis,” according to Zolla.

“We built proprietary, machine-learning algorithms to essentially spit out… these are the best things for you,” he said.

The search uses lifestyle triggers that make people shop for a new car, like a new job, move or family changes, then adds what people are looking for in a new car, which then gives buyers a small sample set of results. From that set, Zolla says, people can then swipe right or left, like Tinder, so they come up with a few models they want to buy.

After that, they can be matched with the right dealer based on user and dealer reviews and what other consumers have found success with, based on data. Also, since many people take months to decide on the right car and the right dealer, Cars.com remembers users.

“We’re optimizing not just for the perfect vehicle, but we're actually optimizing for the process of finding and buying a car,” said Zolla.

The current Cars.com traffic is 65% mobile. Most people start their search on desktop, but end their searches on mobile, said Skinner Ricketts. Beta tests of the new site show that engagement is up 750%, with return visits up 87%.

“People are choosing to come back to Cars.com. They are engaging at a much higher and deeper level,” said Zolla.

The campaign solidifies the new dating concept. A 30-second TV spot drives home the point, sayng that Cars.com is where “a cowgirl can meet 480 horses, where a Labordoodle owner can meet their next hybrid…and where a soccer mom can meet her MVP.”

The concept extends to the social realm, with each match getting its own focus, including a humorous ‘skip’ feature.

The cars are even getting their own dating ads. “We’re anthropomorphizing cars looking for their perfect matches…writing profiles for cars on Tinder. Instagram and Facebook," said Skinner Ricketts.

The campaign will continue and include integration with the PGA Tour with golfers and caddies, plus pairing with the Onion Labs, leveraging their voice and tone targeted to their unique audience.

Consumers will also eventually be able to select a specific salesperson, based off a series of questions and profiles, all in an effort to be the top car dating site on the web.

See more campaign examples by clicking on the Creative Works box below.

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