5 steps to leave boring automotive ads behind

Similar looking red and white cars lined up next to water | Frank says Automotive advertising is bland and formulaic

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The problem with automotive advertising in Australia? It’s bland, formulaic and hasn’t changed in decades – that’s the view of Frank Morabito, creative director for Melbourne full-service agency Spinach.

We’re still doing the same things we were doing 30 years ago,” he said at the Mumbrella Automotive Summit in Sydney.

Morabito drew comparisons to the early days of automotive advertising – the 1950s – when every car on the market was being championed for its size: “It was all a very ostentatious approach to advertising. The big motor, the big bar, it looks big, feels big, acts big, it’s big, right?” he said.

In 1959, change swept through the auto landscape when Manhattan agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) created the ‘Think Small’ campaign for Volkswagen. Not only was Volkswagen the Apple of the time, it was also the Tesla of the time – the brand asked consumers to buy into a new philosophy. In Morabito’s view, most automotive brands are “going down the same path”.

“We kind of do the same thing. We feature a car. We try and come up with a look and a line. It all looks pretty boring. Imagine if you could do something different and not show a car. Wow. Could you?”

Advertising cars without showing the vehicle is not without precedent. The 1977 ad for the Fiat 132 featuring a wolf draped in sheep skin is a great example.

“It’s probably my all-time favourite car ad. It’s the perfect ad. You can’t unsee that image,” said Morabito.

What the ad does well is stand for something different, which is exactly what today’s car brands need to do, Morabito believes.

“It’s not a tagline. It’s much more than a tagline. I don’t care if you call it an ethos, a narrative, or a story.

Whatever it is, it’s something bigger. It’s something that your brand can own, is true to your brand, and is actually relevant to the consumer.”

While new car sales continue to break records in Australia, Morabito was keen to point out that right now, most brands have no idea which marketing activity is responsible for that result.

“Why are we selling more cars? Is it purely driven by price? What is the brand doing? How much of that is actually accountable? There are a whole bunch of things that you’ve got to bring into that equation,” he said.

The point, he added, is that there is a big change coming to the industry driven by the shifting consumer landscape, autonomous cars and other technological advances, and brands need to act before it’s too late.

“That change is pretty close, and we need to do something about it beyond just listing features,” he said.

He outlined a five-point plan which began with establishing a shared purpose.

1. Developing a shared purpose

For car brands to connect with consumers, Morabito encouraged them to create a “symbiotic relationship”.

Currently, Morabito said, car brands simply reel off a list of features the vehicle offers which is not enough, particularly given today’s savvy consumer is well aware that every car brand has performance, safety and technology credentials.

“What we need to do is find something that’s deeper than the metal,” he said.

Morabito cited Apple’s well-known ‘Shot on iPhone’ work, which has been adapted around the world.

“Apple finds those shots and they get to use the shots that you’ve made in their ads. This campaign is shared purpose in action.”

Another example is Twitter’s Hashtag campaign which won a number of awards at Cannes this year.

“The relationship here is that you can actually participate in world events in a way that you never could before. This is about making spectators participators. It’s a shared symbiotic relationship and it’s really powerful,” said Morabito.

2. Audience first, rather than features

The second point in Morabito’s action plan is customer centricity. The creative director believes most automotive brands presently put features before consumers.

“We’re all talking about us as an industry and us as car brands. No one’s really thinking about, ‘What the f*ck does the audience really want?’ They’re not out there just waiting to absorb our wonderful creations. If they’re sitting on a bus and our ad comes on, it’s getting in the way of what they’re actually trying to watch. They don’t want to see our ad. We’re not that important,” he said.

Additionally, the features overload of car advertising is, in Morabito’s opinion, too much for the human brain to compute. Instead of merely trying to “just spew stuff out”, he said brands need to think like storytellers. The touchstone for this is animation company Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling. Rule number two on the list states: “You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do. They can be very different.”

“We get swept up by media and stuff, and we think that we need to get stuff out there, and to some degree, we do, but can’t we think about what’s actually important to an audience? What’s the relationship we’re trying to form here?” he said.

3. Be relevant in the channel or you will lose

With the average consumer bombarded with thousands of pieces of advertising collateral every day, Morabito advised auto brands to think about relevancy.

“If you’re irrelevant to the audience, you’re actually invisible,” he said.

Using the example of output from various car manufacturers on Instagram, he made the point that while the content may be visually appealing, it often lacks relevance and worse still, completely misses the desired audience.

He said, “How many of those people are actually looking to buy a car at that stage? Probably not many of them. Is this what we’ve dumbed everything down to? We’re trying to appeal to every f*cker with a thumb.”

4. Stay on message

Staying on message – everywhere, always – is another of Morabito’s tenets. However, most brands are guilty of doing the exact opposite.

A holistic view of a brand’s marketing efforts in the auto space will usually reveal a brand ad, retail ads as well as promotions and dealer-led activity. This is accompanied by social media efforts.

“There is not one common thread between it. It’s just a big mess. People don’t give a shit, so they don’t want to join the dots. You can’t make them join the dots. You have to join the dots for them,” said Morabito.

His advice for automotive brands is to follow the lead of entertainment franchises.

“Marvel is probably one of the most profitable brands out there. It’s a huge over-arching brand. They’ve got all these individual products that sit underneath it, and they always speak in character,” he said.

5. Consolidate

Morabito’s last and most contentious point focused on the range of agencies car brands are working with. He urged marketers to cut the number of specialist suppliers.

Morabito said suppliers get locked in a battle to get their hands on the largest share of budget: “Pay your agencies, give them the account, and make them accountable. Or, you have to get a kick-ass guardian,” he said.

While most marketers rely on agencies to do this, Morabito was adamant this is folly: “You can’t trust us because we all want to steal your budget,” he said.

“There is so much stuff being cut up and spread about the place that there’s no one sitting there guarding what you stand for,” he said.

“I get the theory. The theory is that you have all these little specialist suppliers, you put all the people that work on a particular part of your business in this sandpit and they’re gonna create beautiful stuff. And then, you’re gonna invite everyone else along to come and look at that beautiful stuff. Then you all share it. That’s bullshit.”

Further reading

View related article Automotive marketing needs a shake up on Warc.

Frank Morabito

As our Executive Creative Director, Frank fiercely believes in the power of harnessing the agency’s collective creative force to create great work that achieves extraordinary business results.