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Automakers try building brand loyalty with lavish parties, tours

November 23, 2010
Even a rare, late October Southern California downpour couldn't douse the turnout of invited Hummer owners and their guests to the Anaheim (Calif.) Convention Center for free sushi, burgers, beer and a private concert and autograph session with hip-hop hit makers Black Eyed Peas-all on General Motors Corp.'s tab. With Hummer's sales slipping this year, GM was looking to strengthen its connection with loyal buyers in a key market and win over a few converts. The food and music was the bait, but the hook dangled before the 1,400 guests was a preview of the mid-sized Hummer H3 and high-performance H1 Alpha. Automakers are getting up close and personal with customers more often these days, hoping to forge lasting bonds that won't break every time a competitor debuts a hot car or offers a big rebate.In addition to Hummer, DaimlerChrysler AG's Jeep brand and Toyota Motor Co.'s Lexus division  are employing softsell customer loyalty marketing events. Liz Vanzura, the Hummer marketing director who dreamed up the free concert idea, says the goal is to breed long-term brand loyalty while fostering a feeling of exclusivity. "It's being part of an exclusive club of passionate people," she said. "You couldn't get a ticket unless you were a Hummer buyer. We're trying to increase loyalty." Hummer H2 owner Cesar Cervantes, a 37-year old mechanical engineer, was skeptical when he received the party invitation. In the end, though, he couldn't resist Hummer's unexpected largesse. "I didn't think it would be so nice," he said. Cervantes and his wife watched the concert after enjoying the complimentary drinks and burgers. "I thought it would be just another sales pitch, but I love it," he said. His other car is a Mercedes-Benz, but Hummer's hospitality now has him thinking about the smaller, new H3. "I'm anxious to see what it looks like," Cervantes said. Laurie Kariya isn't really in the market for a new ride, but she takes pride in driving against the grain in her behemoth 1993 H1. The novelty of the event appealed to her appreciation of the unusual and her disdain for obtuse salesmanship. "It was unconventional rather than mass marketing," said Kariya, as she sipped her free glass of wine. The location was strategic as well. California is Hummer's biggest market, accounting for about 30 percent of its annual sales. It's no coincidence the H3 and H1 Alpha made their world debut the next day at the California International Auto Show in the hall adjacent to the arena. "California is a big buzz market," Vanzura said. "If we get good reaction there, we hope that influence will spread to the rest of the country." Free music, food, a dash of subtle salesmanship and ego stroking are all indicative of customer loyalty events which are generally held several times a year in several locations. For instance, Hummer holds "Hummer Happenings" where owners are given lessons in off-road driving. Camp Jeep programs invite owners for weekends of putting their SUVs through the paces on challenging off-road courses, camping out, eating barbecue and bonding around the campfire. The key to making these events work is to "make the vehicle the hero" and then give the customer as many chances as possible to drive it. "We know a test drive will create a three-to-one opportunity that a person will intend to purchase," Bitonti said. "Put 'em in the seats with very little pressure." The other half of the equation, he says, is creating a dialogue with those already in the fold to determine how best to keep them there. "People will tell you whether they love this or they hate this," Bitonti said. The more genteel Lexus brand stages a 13-city, invitation- only Taste of Luxury Tour, melding test drives with upper crust touches designed to pluck the right strings of the 40,000 hand-picked attendees-70 percent Lexus prospects and 30 percent current Lexus owners. The companies won't reveal what they spend on such events, but marketing analyst Jim Sanfilippo says they've been elevated in importance from merely tactical to strategic and now are an imperative in marketing plans. "These things are designed to magnify word of mouth, to basically train your customers to sell the products they love and the products you sell," Sanfilippo said. "It turns advocates into zealots. "The idea of live zealots selling your product-you just can't live without."
 

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