If the nearly 20 million YouTube views of Kia's trio of pudgy dancing hamsters translates into sales, the company will have placed at least one piece in the marketing puzzle of increasingly fragmented audiences.
It's the memorable, remarkable and meaningful campaigns that get noticed. But such successes are tough to pull off in the mile-high heap of strategies that bombard consumers.
The Kia ads, winner of the Nielsen Automotive Ad of the Year, promote the redesign of the Soul. The latest in the series, part of a five-year, $4.3-billion campaign, feature rotund hamsters as they morph into svelte tuxedo-clad playboys sashaying down the red carpet at the Academy Awards.
"We definitely think it's worth the investment. (It's) proven to be invaluable," says Robert Staffieri, Kia Canada's director of marketing.
According to Kia Canada's year-end sales figures, the South Korean auto maker has nearly doubled its annual sales of vehicles in Canada since the hamsters made their debut in 2009.
"The spirit of hamsters is that they're fun, they're youthful, they're breakthrough," he says. "You can't look away when you see them."
However, no marketing campaign is ever a slam-dunk with fickle consumers. Marketing guru Seth Godin describes consumers as tribes – a hodgepodge of niche groups – whose allegiances are hard to snag because they have too many choices and too little time.
The consumer is a moving target and campaigns must be nimble enough to react to the next big thing. An auto maker may put some of its budget into Facebook ads, only to discover – as General Motors did – it was having little impact on consumer choice.
We're in the Marketing 3.0 phase, says Vincent Georgie, MBA program director and assistant professor of marketing at the Odette School of Business at the University of Windsor.
Marketing strategies didn't even exist in the early 20th century, says Georgie; it was all about the product. Then, Marketing 2.0 put the focus on the consumer.
"Now 3.0 is all about the marketing spirit, tying (a product) to core values, emotions and beliefs of the consumer," says Georgie.
That's something many car makers are grasping, like Citroën did when, in 2012, it launched the "world's first crowd-sourced car," a Facebook campaign that invited people to help design the C1 Connexion. More than 24,000 people submitted opinions for the microcity runabout, and Citroën gained more than 15,000 Facebook followers.
Many auto makers are also putting digital first in their advertising spend. Whereas TV was once top-tier advertising – including the almighty Super Bowl ads, which this year topped out at $8-million a minute – now, social media, YouTube and other digital platforms are seizing big chunks of the ad budget.
And like the Citroën strategy, it has to be smart and slick, but not smarmy.
"If every tweet or FB update says 'buy our product' in a roundabout way, people will disengage with it," says Georgie.
There's also the danger of becoming a victim of your own success if the model becomes ubiquitous, like the Ford Focus, says Georgie. Consumers can be influenced by "opinion leaders," who steer clear of models that have become too popular. "An opinion leader, or someone with strong individuality, would not line up with a car like that."
Ed Broadbear, Chrysler Canada's vice-president of marketing, is familiar with the challenge.
"Things used to be so simple: radio, TV and some friends," he says. Now the company has a heavy digital presence in both social media and traditional media to reach those fragmented audiences. "It makes it more challenging to market. It's a juggling act."
But grabbing them emotionally is key, says one study that also declared brand loyalty to be on life support. The car buyer brand perceptions study by Trend Tracker says less than half of car buyers purchase the same brand the next time they buy.
The rest – nearly 60 per cent – pick their next car with their emotions, and how they relate to a brand, the study says.
Hyundai, Kia and Ford were singled out as brands that rely on price and value in their advertising, because the perception is that their styling is "weak or unattractive."
But the media buy still also relies on the tradition of accolades, such as truck or car of the year awards, handed out annually by auto journalists. Car company executives say such kudos translate into sales.
"The awards just add momentum to a good product," says Broadbear, citing the Dodge Ram 1500, named truck of the year at the 2013 Detroit auto show. "I think it definitely does impact consumer behaviour. The buying population really depends on that advice."
Staffieri says while it's difficult to attribute sales to just one message, both the Sorrento and Soul won their categories at the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada awards. "We don't attribute sales to it, but all our messaging includes it. It doesn't negatively affect sales."
But how much can a consumer digest and retain? The personality or credibility of a brand still resonates with some buyers over the long run.
Recent Mini buyer Julie Van Rosendaal, a Calgary food writer, says a specific campaign had nothing to do with her car choice. But the brand's reputation as a hip, progressive vehicle certainly influenced her decision.
"The fun, cool factor definitely came into play. I think a smart marketing campaign might be enough to plant the seed – it might make me aware of a certain brand or style of car that I might then seek out when I was in the market for one," she says.
Her family was ready for a change. "In the past, we've stuck to buying Subaru Outbacks, knowing their track record for safety and longevity," says Van Rosendaal.
"People who drive Subarus are pretty loyal to their brand. But we wanted something new."
Clarification: Kia's sales have almost doubled since 2009. An earlier version of this story stated that Kia's sales have doubled since the campaign began.
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