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Driving Innovation

Traditional car companies are courting a new group of consumers with hard-driving innovation. Learn about the unconventional branding campaigns launched by Chrysler, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz to inject some soul in new cars created for generation Y.

Raised on Total Request Live, wireless phones, and generous allowances, generation Y is driving enormous, recession-proof sales for brands like Pepsi, Sony, and Abercrombie & Fitch. So it’s not surprising that the nation’s 18- to 24-year-olds are attracting the attention of all sorts of brands — young and old, hip and stuffy alike. One unlikely suitor: the old-line car company.

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Earlier this year, both DaimlerChrysler and Toyota announced plans to court the youth market that’s currently infatuated with rivals Volkswagen and Honda. The new Chrysler Crossfire and Toyota Scion series — sleek, unconventional, and decidedly strange — aim to attract first-time car buyers with comparatively low prices and high technology. Hook ’em while they’re young and impressionable, and you’ve got a lifelong fan. Or so the saying goes.

But how can a 78-year-old brand like Chrysler, best known for its family-friendly Town & Country line, entice a 2002 college graduate to consider its latest model over a VW Beetle? Increasingly, the challenge of winning over generation Y is falling not to traditional ad shops and 30-second TV spots, but to hybrid branding agencies with integrated marketing schemes — not to mention super-fly names like Hypnotic, Fresh Machine, and Critical Mass.

“Young people are suspicious about marketing — as they should be,” says Rick Bolton, founder of Los Angeles-based Fresh Machine, the “next generation consultancy” that’s helping Toyota launch its young, urban Scion brand. The skepticism and distrust of young consumers is driving marketers like Bolton to reconsider and reinvent the timing, placement, and goals of branding initiatives.

As Maxim would say, Sexy: Online driving simulations, branded films, over-the-top customization. Stodgy: Celebrity endorsements, closed-track demonstrations, showrooms. Nothing is sacred.

It’s too early to measure the success of these unconventional branding campaigns — their ability to convert pop-culture cachet into car sales. But it’s not premature to say that traditional car companies are taking some formidable risks along the way to wooing a new generation of drivers. Here, we examine three crucial, revolutionary branding campaigns spearheaded by aging automobile manufacturers that are seeking the fountain of youth: Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz, and Toyota.

Crossfire, Cross-Sell

DaimlerChrysler has a lot riding on the Crossfire, its polished concept coupe scheduled for release in mid-2003. The first love child of Germany’s Daimler-Benz and Detroit’s Chrysler Corp., the Crossfire represents the potential and profitability of a momentous automobile-industry merger. Can this mega car company successfully combine sleek European engineering with classic American stylings? In many ways, DaimlerChrysler hopes the Crossfire will convince critics that it can — and will.

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But no matter how Euro-cool, the Crossfire will surely fail if it doesn’t make a huge consumer splash. That’s where Hypnotic comes in.

A Los Angeles-based startup, Hypnotic is an entertainment production company that uses independent films to market a variety of brands. Its challenge from Chrysler: Create a marketing campaign for the Crossfire that balances brand and entertainment, that will outlive competitors’ flash-in-the-pan gimmicks, and that can extend into movie theaters, magazines, television, radio, and dealerships. And launch it a full year before anyone can buy the car.

Charged with “younging” the brand, Hypnotic pitched the Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival (MDFF), a nine-monthlong competition for aspiring filmmakers to win a production deal with Universal Pictures, which is a minority investor in Hypnotic. Launched at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the MDFF will ultimately produce one feature-length film and nine runner-up short films that incorporate the Crossfire or PT Cruiser.

“We are extending an automobile brand into a lifestyle,” explains Doug Scott, vice president of marketing for Hypnotic. “We’re deconstructing the brand’s attributes and integrating them into the main characters of these action-adventure and romantic short films. The on-screen heroes will communicate the personalities of these new automotive nameplates.”

Though Hypnotic’s competition resembles the wildly successful BMW films series, it’s no me-too branding scheme. By inviting any and all independent filmmakers to participate in the contest, Chrysler is allowing its consumers — or prospective consumers — to participate in the formation of the Crossfire brand. It’s handing power to the people.

“We chose to focus on art rather than commercialization,” says Jeff Bell, vice president of the Chrysler brand. “We give BMW credit for breaking outside of the standard advertising medium, but Chrysler is less intrigued with the $100-million-budget projects and more interested in seeing true innovation, inspiration, and creativity come to play with the emerging filmmaker. We’re interested in ideas, not special effects.”

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At last month’s Cannes Film Festival, Hypnotic set up a Chrysler Villa at the Hotel Martinez and kicked off the extreme filmmaking phase of the MDFF by challenging each of its 10 semifinalists to write, cast, shoot, edit, and premiere a five-minute short film in just 10 days. A star-studded panel of judges then chose 5 finalists to move on to the Chrysler Summer House in Los Angeles, where they will develop a million-dollar production package alongside an industry mentor on the Universal Studios lot. In exchange for funding the feature-length film, Chrysler will claim partial-equity ownership of the final product.

“Here’s a marketing program that’s paying you on the other end,” Scott says. “All you need is one diamond in the rough to make this program worthwhile.”

We’re Really Huge in Japan

While Chrysler aligns its Crossfire and PT Cruiser with film lovers, Toyota is placing all of its chips on music. Last year, the maker of the Tercel and Camry lines announced that it would launch an entirely new line of cars for first-time buyers. This entry-level line, called Scion, won’t debut in the United States until June 2003, yet the brand is already alive and kicking thanks to Fresh Machine, a two-year-old design shop with absolutely no experience in the automotive industry and just 10 full-time employees.

“Toyota decided it wanted to go outside of the envelope entirely with the Scion launch and to work with an interactive shop rather than an ad agency. That was a huge, critical difference,” says Rick Bolton, who was previously the director of broadband and future TV at Razorfish. “They were glad we’d never worked on a car account before because they didn’t want the same old thing. They wanted a branding launch that wouldn’t fall into expected patterns.”

And, by all accounts, that’s what they got when Fresh Machine partnered with the Rebel Organization, the marketing arm of a Los Angeles-based music magazine called Urb. Together, they created the Scion brand from the ground up, starting with the actual silver-coated badge that appears on every car and ending with a cutting-edge Web site that screams youth and exuberance.

Aimed specifically at an urban crowd interested in house, dance, electronica, and trance music, Urb helped Toyota narrow its focus on a specific youth demographic that would exploit the customization potential of the bbX and ccX — the first two Scion models. (The boxy bbX model actually resembles a giant cruising speaker and boasts a custom audio system.) Fresh Machine stepped in with the technical and design expertise to build a high-tech brand for that target customer. And the result can be sampled at the Scion Web site, which houses music downloads, Urb stories, and fresh graphics, all of which combine to communicate the brand message.

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“Authenticity was absolutely important,” Bolton says of the Scion site. “We didn’t want to overhype the cars, so we concentrated on narratives that weren’t condescending or canned, and we emphasized the experiential notion of the brand. In the end, a car is really a lifestyle choice. You buy a car, and it becomes a reflection of you for many years. That means successful car brands must have lifestyle credibility.”

That is an important departure from traditional thinking, says Danish branding guru Jesper Kunde. “Choose your values and define your soul,” says Kunde, author of Unique Now … Or Never: The Brand Is the Company Driver in the New Value Economy (Prentice Hall, 2002) and Corporate Religion: Building a Strong Company Through Personality and Corporate Soul (Prentice Hall, 2000). “Soul and authenticity are essential. Consumers today have all the power, and they will challenge companies to communicate their vision in new and dynamic ways. If your brand has no soul, it has no personality and no compelling message. Consumers will see through that.”

That is part of the reason why Toyota, which has failed to create a stir with its youthful Echo, began building the Scion brand so far in advance of the car’s launch dates, Bolton says. “Toyota wants buzz and word of mouth to take hold and help build credibility for the brand. And they have the time to do that.”

All Your Car Are Belong to Us

Just as the Internet helped make the nonsensical phrase “All your base are belong to us” a well-recognized piece of the gen-Y lexicon, Mercedes-Benz hopes the Web will entice young car buyers to rave about the brand. Currently, about 60% of households conduct online research before buying a car. In the 18-to-34-year-old category, that percentage is significantly higher. Mercedes let those statistics steer all marketing initiatives for its C-Class Coupe, the first Mercedes priced around $25,000 and aimed specifically at twentysomethings.

In a cluttered market segment aimed at an overstimulated demographic, Mercedes knew that it needed to transcend the flash and fizzle of traditional automotive sites. So it brought on board Critical Mass, a marketing and media-services company that’s based in Calgary, Alberta to build the C-Coupe Web site. The integrated site needed to communicate a more youthful vibe, while remaining mindful of the high-caliber Mercedes brand. Respect your elders, but don’t follow their rules, Mercedes told Critical Mass.

“We aimed to create a destination, not just an online brochure,” says Jerry Johnston, president and CEO of Critical Mass. “The Web site informs and educates, but it also gets consumers to the next level in the buying process by exciting and engaging them. Mercedes wants to empower its consumers from the beginning.”

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And putting buyers in charge means arming them with a variety of interchangeable tools. The toolbox — the C-Coupe site — links users to an online sweepstakes promotion, a PDA application with detailed specifications and images, and a viral tool that allowed users to craft and share their own C-Coupe movie. Elegant and streamlined, the site was recently ranked best in online convenience by J.D. Powers.

It wasn’t shocking or particularly groundbreaking in design and execution, but the C-Coupe site got the job done for the roughly 1.4 million users who visited during the sweepstakes. And now Mercedes hopes to keep those gen-X and gen-Y consumers invested in the brand by giving each one of them an individual Web site when they buy a Mercedes.

“The owner Web sites will keep track of service records, leases, loans, and insurance,” Johnston says. “Eventually, you’ll be able to identify where your car is parked by turning on your computer. You’ll be able to have your car diagnosed remotely. Technology is going to broaden Mercedes’s relationship with its consumers well beyond the car-buying experience.”

Even the best technology can’t help Mercedes, Chrysler, or Toyota quantify the success of the new, innovative branding campaigns. How many click-throughs translate into actual sales? What lasting impression will a branded feature film leave on potential consumers? Can music really define a brand personality? With a little luck, these three companies will find out.

Anni Layne Rodgers (annirodgers@hotmail.com) is the former Fast Company senior Web editor.