March 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

Ga-Ga Over Google

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In Pontiac’s case, the primary target is most likely young professionals with the earning power and disposable income to purchase an automobile.

Other ritual brands retailers can associate with that will provide their own brand a lift with young professionals include the NBA and iPod. BMW and Mercedes Benz have already run successful promotions in which customers buying a new vehicle received an iPod, according to Cottineau.

Travelocity capitalized on an association with Netflix in which consumers received a free Netflix subscription for booking a vacation in addition to recommendations for music and movies related to their destination. “It’s about engaging people in a way that speaks to their lifestyle,” adds Cottineau.

Leveraging the Google brand is not the first time Pontiac has tried to associated itself with a ritual brand online. The automaker did a tie-in during the spring of 2005 with the television show “The Apprentice” when it introduced the Solstice, a 2-seat roadster scheduled to arrive in showrooms later that year. Participants on “The Apprentice” were asked to create a marketing brochure for the new automobile.

Viewers wanting to immediately learn more about the new car were directed to a customized landing page where they were offered a certificate that they could take to a Pontiac dealer the day after the episode aired to purchase one of the first 1,000 Solstices off the assembly line. The vehicles were to come with a special insignia identifying them as limited editions.

The certificates were grabbed up in 41 minutes, according to Pontiac. By the time dealers could begin taking orders the following day, 212,000 people had visited the Solstice landing page. Of that group, 20,000 had signed up for a certificate to take to a dealer to order one of the first 1,000 Solstice models. Coincidentally, Pontiac planned to produce 20,000 Solstices during the first year.

Dovetailing

The Solstice promotion dovetailed with a similar campaign linked to the “Oprah Winfrey Show” in which the star gave away 276 G6 sedans to the audience. As with the Solstice/Apprentice promotion, Pontiac directed people to a landing page for the G6. About 250,000 unique visitors came to the page the day of the show, up from a daily average of about 30,000.

“Good cross channel marketers realize that driving people online delivers a richer, more interactive marketing experience,” says Peter Kim, senior analyst for Forrester Research. “The online marketing experience provides the ability to communicate with the consumer one-on-one about the brand. There is likely to be more of this kind of cross-channel integration.”

Despite Pontiac’s adeptness in other cross-channel marketing campaigns, its “Google Pontiac” campaign falls down in several areas, analysts note. Most noticeably lacking in this case is an interactive prompt once consumers land on Pontiac.com. “There needs to be some kind of mechanism to capture information about the customer so it can be used to communicate with them to build a relationship that brings them back to your site,” explains Keith Wardell, president and CEO of marketing company Exmplar Inc. “Pontiac has built nothing on the back end of the promotion to track dealer traffic or sales generated by the campaign. All they can measure is how often Pontiac is entered on Google. That’s not necessarily enough to justify the cost of broadcast media.”

One possibility for creating a measurable interaction with the customer on the back end is to leverage the Build an Auto feature. The feature is popular with customers who are set on the type of vehicle they want and the features in it without having to start the process at the dealership. Allowing the customer to build the car, and following up with an e-mail brochure detailing the finished product and showing local dealers that have it in stock can be a powerful interactive relationship building tool, according to marketing experts. Toyota.com has used a similar approach.

Creative thinking

“Multi-channel retailers need to think creatively to find ways to engage the audience,” says Lisa Wehr, CEO of search marketing company Oneupweb. “Too many retailers rely on tested marketing methods and forget to experiment. In Pontiac’s case, they did not create a perfect flow-through between marketing channels.”

The other major risk with Pontiac’s strategy is that competitors can purchase keywords to position themselves higher up in the search results when shoppers Google Pontiac. Mazda, which produces the Miata, a competitor to the Solstice, reportedly has been buying paid search results against Pontiac. Google allows advertisers to buy a competitor’s keyword if the advertiser does not include that word in the creative, according to search engine marketing experts.

“There is a small, but measurable risk to marketers who encourage search as part of an ad,” says Kevin Lee, chairman and co-founder of Did-It Search Marketing. “Regardless of whether an advertiser includes a call to action in their general offline advertising, there is a large interaction effect between advertising and searches for the advertiser’s brand in all the search engines.”

Retailers hoping to emulate Pontiac’s strategy must be cognizant that the association with Google has a limited shelf life. Once other advertisers follow suit, the uniqueness of the approach will fade and eventually be tuned out by consumers. “Others are certain to follow, but for the Pontiac, the big question is whether this campaign will still be there in 60 days and if they have refined it into a complete multi-channel marketing package,” adds Wardell.

Despite the shortcomings of the Pontiac campaign, the automaker clearly succeeded in creating a marketing buzz as well as leveraging the power of broadcast advertising to direct consumers to the web where they can further their education about the brand.

Whether the strategy actually drives a significant boost in sales remains to be seen, as it is unlikely Pontiac will release information about the program if it falls short of expectations. Nevertheless, there are plenty of lessons for multi-channel retailers to take away from the Googlization of Pontiac.

Peter Lucas is a freelance business writer based in Highland Park, Ill.

 

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