Automotive Marketing: The Ultimate Guide

October 2, 2023

Automotive marketing is more than a century old!

The first car ad came out way back in 1898. All it had was the tagline 'Dispense with a horse' listed with a few benefits.

First automotive marketing ad in 1898

Source: Print

But as the years went by, the automotive industry saw increasing competition, pitting several manufacturers against each other. And the best place to begin competing was advertising.

It started with print, moving gradually to newer inventions like the radio and television. Then, of course, came the internet.

A gear shift to digital

Automotive marketing has shifted significantly to digital marketing and online car sales, mainly since COVID-19 made the internet more popular. 

As a result, the automotive industry has grown:

  • As of July 2023, more than 1,40,000 new cars were registered in the UK. It marks a 28% growth from July 2022.  
  • Nearly 1 million units were sold in the European Union as of May 2023, an 18.5% growth from the previous year.
  • In the US, July 2023 saw total vehicle sales climb to 15.74 million.  

With so much potential for continued growth, it's crucial to have the right digital marketing strategies to reach the right audience. 

If you're an OEM, dealer or marketing agency, this is the guide for you.

Why care about switching up automotive marketing? 

Marketing plays a pivotal role in the automotive industry. Let's see how:

1. Brand identity and positioning

Today's crowded market needs your brand to have a unique identity.

Better marketing improves your brand awareness and reputation, helping the audience understand your value proposition and build a solid brand identity.

2. Influence buyer decision 

Automotive marketing establishes your offering as the most desirable choice in car buyers' minds. It influences the audience's decision-making process in your favour.

3. Improve revenue and retention

Digital automotive marketing enables reaching out to customers on multiple channels, personalising each experience. You can widen your audience and cater to specific segments.

You can also connect with the customer throughout their lifecycle. This attracts more potential customers and encourages existing customers to stick around.

4. Uncover in-depth insights 

Know how your audience responds to your campaigns and make informed decisions to optimise your campaign or even introduce product upgrades (based on user feedback).

How to find out what the automotive customer wants 

Understanding your consumer is the next step in developing automotive marketing strategies. As automotive marketers, you can better address their motivations via three primary considerations:

  • Target audience for your brand or product
  • Buyer behaviour 
  • Consumer trends  

1. Identify your target audience 

Your brand and products cater to specific audience needs i.e. only a few audience groups may be related to your offering.

You can get closer to identifying your target audience by analysing their demographics i.e. their age, gender, location, income, etc. and psychographic segmentation i.e. are they seeking luxury, adventure or functionality, if they are eco-conscious, etc.

You can also learn more by learning their purchase frequency, the purpose of buying - e.g. personal or commercial, their research process and customer journey.

Additionally, you can segment the audience into:

Active customers

Already existing customers who do business with you regularly, usually once in 12 months or less

Inactive customers 

Customers who have extended their lifecycle and don’t come in frequently

Lost customers 

Defectors who haven’t engaged with you for some time but may still be interested in your products

Conquest customers

Who are available in the market but haven’t reached out to your dealership or contacted you directly through the website just yet

2. Understand buying behaviour

Buyers take much time to make decisions. In 2022, car buyers spent 14 hours and 39 minutes researching and purchasing vehicles. It marked an 18% increase from 2021. 

Let's look at the buyer journey to understand why buyers take so long.  

Buyer journey in automotive marketing
  1. Awareness stage 

This is when customers experience triggers for making the purchase. These include:

  • Change in lifestyle
  • Breakdown of an existing car for good 
  • Routine renovation of the car
  • An uptick in business activities 

Identifying the reasons behind the purchase and relating them to your products will give you the right automotive marketing hook.

  1. Consideration stage

In the second stage, buyers undertake thorough research.

They may:

  • Review sources online and offline (social media, brand websites, online communities, press articles, review websites and more).
  • Get opinions from friends or experts. 
  • Create a list of options and research extensively about each.
  1. Decision stage 

Customers visit car dealerships only after they've researched enough about the brand, product and dealer. They don't always trust the salesperson to give complete information. 

At this stage, 82% of customers use familiarity with the brand, product or the dealership as a factor in decision-making. It's also important to note that they don't visit just one dealer but explore 2 to 3. 

Your automotive marketing strategy must create an impression on the lead in the previous two stages, enough for them to convert.

3. Trends influencing customers 

Since purchasing a car is a substantial financial decision, buyers want a product that fits their needs to the T. This appetite to make the best purchase fuels specific trends: 

  • Buyers increasingly use digital platforms to research automotives. 59% of buyers research online before entering car dealerships. 
  • Buyers use multiple websites for their research, including third-party, dealership, OEM and used vehicle retailers. 
  • Mobile usage is increasing globally. 69% of internet users prefer to check online reviews on their mobiles rather than talk to an in-store employee. 
  • 21% of car customers say social media directly informed their purchase—up from 16% in 2021. Another 71% use social media to assist their car-buying process.

Once you've figured out the above three considerations, it's time to set up your automotive marketing strategy.

Strategies for automotive digital marketing success

Digital automotive marketing leaves a long-lasting impact only if you use it tactically. Here are 4 techniques you must include in your online marketing plan:

1. Search engine optimization 

Search is where most buyers begin their own research process, and Google is one of the top search engines.

Search Engine Results Page (SERP) is the first place to optimise. Your goal is to appear in the top four to five results. Shoppers already spend so much time on research that they usually don't move past the first few results. 

Digital automotive marketing strategies: SEO

Source: Google 

The key to winning at SEO is adapting quickly because Google changes its algorithm 500-600 times every year. Below are some steps you can follow: 

  • Create original and valuable content.
  • Add rich snippets (code that shows which text to display when Google summarises your page in SERPs).
  • Optimise your website and ads for mobile since that's where 57% of searches come from. It reduces the bounce rate on mobile search engines.
  • Encourage car dealers to set up their own Google Business profiles. Ask them to add location, contact details, open hours and high-resolution photos of your vehicles in the dealership. 
  • Build backlinks to your website to improve relevance and trustworthiness. 
  • Ensure your website has a seamless user experience so they can easily browse through it.

2. Paid ads on search 

In the highly competitive automotive industry, SEO alone isn't enough. You need a combination of SEO (organic) and paid search campaigns.

Digital automotive marketing strategies: Paid ads

Source: Google

Since you need to appear in the first few listings to get noticed, build a solid Google ads strategy. Here are some things you can do: 

  • Don't go overboard with keywords. A general rule is 15 to 20 keywords in each ad group.

“As a best practice, fewer keywords with good search volume is a good starting point. You can then expand as the activity runs.”

– Verushka Paul, Paid Media Account Manager at Driftrock

  • Use ad extensions like lead generation forms. They capture lead information directly from ads, making it a seamless process. 
  • Add negative keywords so you stop appearing for irrelevant searches. Check the search query report to find them. 
  • Allocate the ad budget strategically between campaigns. For example, popular terms must be assigned a higher budget.
  • Optimise your campaign according to trends. For instance, certain holidays like Black Friday and Christmas are great for offering discounts. You could use price and promo extensions, adding a start and end date for the extensions.
  • Split the target audience for different campaigns to reach the right customers.

3. Social media 

Social media expands your presence on multiple platforms. Facebook and Instagram are the most scalable and efficient. You can also try out Google Discovery, TikTok and Pinterest. Plus, you can experiment with a ton of formats—Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts, stories, pictures, videos and motion content.

Video is one of the most popular ones today. Use them to showcase your offerings in a more interactive way. For example, you can use videos to:

  • Launch a new model.
  • Show customer testimonials.
  • Share tips for care care.
  • Update followers about new features on models.
  • Make a splash with press events. 

Notably, customer testimonials using interview-style video content make your brand and product more relatable for the audience.

Digital automotive marketing strategies: Social media

Source: Audi UK

Boost your posts using the wide range of social ad inventories on offer, target specific customer segments and make the most of analytics. Using paid ads, you can capture leads and manage remarketing campaigns effectively.

Several social media platforms also offer native lead generation forms as an organic and paid format. They’re especially popular for sharing valuable resources or offers. Native forms let you seamlessly collect user information (including pre-filled details), without your audience having to take much effort.

4. Email marketing

Email marketing works explicitly well for nurturing existing leads in your pipeline. Emails are more personal and less distracting than social media and online ads. You can reach a customer one-on-one (albeit virtually) and personalise better.

Here are some basics to get your email marketing campaigns right:

  • Send customised emails for each buyer segment.
  • Share exclusive offers and discounts for those who share their email IDs.
  • Share timely updates on new cars, updated features and tips for car care. This way, customers receive information instead of having to search for it. 
  • Make CTAs visible, specific and actionable. For instance, use 'Check Car Price Now' instead of 'Learn More'.
  • Drive traffic to your website. In the example below, Tesla uses a unique approach (information combined with education) to induce purchases.  

Digital automotive marketing strategies: Email marketing

Source: Sendx

You can send emails as service reminders to customers who haven't visited you for more than a month. Or upsell new features, models and insurance packages. You could also survey your customers to analyse buyer preferences for your vehicles.

Offline automotive marketing campaigns (and how to integrate them with online) 

Even though digital is taking over, traditional automotive marketing strategies give your campaigns the extra legs to widen your reach. You can use a combination of offline platforms for this purpose:

1. Television 

Television is still popular as a medium of entertainment for people. You can integrate offline and your online marketing strategy by running ads on both TV and OTT platforms.

Platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ also offer several marketing inventories. 

2. Referral marketing efforts

Referrals are highly effective social proof. To get them, set up a program to incentivise customers. Call or text them and politely ask if they know someone looking to buy an automotive.

Reward referral marketing efforts with discounts, gift cards, store credit, accessories or a free service.

3. Coupons

Distribute coupons at a car dealership or service stores. Use a tablet and share digital coupons, or you can offer printable coupons.

Tie them back to referrals where customers can offer these coupons to other friends and family for purchasing from you.

4. Reviews 

Encourage buyers to share their reviews online when they complete a purchase from you or come in for a service appointment.

Collect reviews on Google, Facebook, and other online directories as Yelp. Or post your offline reviews on social media, your website and other digital platforms.

Consider video reviews as well. They may need more time to gather, but they're more convincing and worthwhile. 

5. Scheduling appointments

Offer easy to use options to schedule test drives or appointments on your website, social media accounts or other digital platforms. Arrange offline phone follow-ups for potential car buyers coming in through this medium.

 6. Social media-worthy moments 

Encourage your new customers and existing customers to click pictures at your car dealership. They can show off the new vehicle they purchased. Or you could arrange a mural or cutout as a 'picture zone'.

You can then promote these pictures on your website, social media, email campaigns and more.

7. Print ads 

Publish newspaper ads or share coupons in the newspapers with QR codes. On scanning the code, potential customers are directed to your landing page.

This adds new offline leads directly to your online database.

Real world examples of automotive marketing

Here are three real examples of automotive brands that ran successful digital advertising campaigns.

1. Mercedes-Benz 

When automotive industry behemoth Mercedes-Benz partnered with another giant in the film industry—Avatar: The Way of Water, it garnered a lot of buzz. 

The partnership tied in to its 'Earth is our Pandora' campaign to promote Mercedes-Benz's new electric vehicles, the film and the concept of eco-consciousness. 

Source: The Drum

The campaign came together with a television commercial, Fandango partnership, brand ambassador and influence engagement, organic social media posts, employee engagement and immersive touchpoints.

The results were pretty impressive: 

  • 100,000 engagements at the touchpoints 
  • 1 million+ impressions and over 40,000 engagements on social 
  • Press articles in notable publications

2. BMW 

BMW Spain wanted to make the most of TikTok, a popular platform amongst all age groups today.

The brand created an eyeball-grabbing video linked to ads with a lead generation form. The form captured potential customers by engaging them in a highly visual and interactive format.  

Plus, the form came with pre-filled information, complete disclaimers and a consent-privacy policy so users knew how their information would be used. The campaign then quickly actioned potential customers by validating their email IDs and syncing with the CRM. 

It improved the lead quality and received 47% lower CPL than other social ad formats. 

3. Toyota

Toyota partnered with leading entertainment-focused publisher LadBible to make the Yaris cool again. And to address the hunger for travel after COVID-19. 

The campaign focused primarily on millennials and GenZ. It was based on a survey of LadBible's audience—66% wished to travel when restrictions loosened up.

Source: YouTube video

LadBible and Toyota built the first-ever car treadmill with the NG Yaris on top, surrounded by 13-foot high LCD screens. The setup offered simulated road trips with celebrities captured on video.

Thus, the campaign showed that Yaris is the perfect car to bring your road trip dream to life. 

Toyota received some fantastic results: 

  • 28.8 million reach on Facebook and Instagram 
  • 8,84,000 engagements on gamified Instagram Stories  
  • Improved consideration by 8%, purchase intent by 3% and desirability for Yaris by 8% 

We hope these examples inspired you with ideas for building successful automotive marketing strategies. But before you get started, here's one last thing to remember.

Watch out for these car buying trends in automotive marketing

There are a couple of car buying trends disrupting the automotive industry as you read this.

1. Technological innovations

Emerging technological innovations in AI and VR are changing the marketing landscape. 

Fiat and Kia are two brands that introduced 'metaverse dealerships', identifying practical business applications of Generative AI. Customers can check the vehicles on display, ask questions, and complete the purchase. 

Similarly, Audi's 'Holoride' tech brings VR entertainment to their vehicle's occupants. The application uses feedback based on the vehicle's movement to create a unique in-car VR experience. 

Toyota recently introduced an AR experience for its latest model, the Crown. It put up QR codes on OOH ads, which led users to a 3D render of the new car.

Source: Martech

2. Sustainability and social responsibility

The automotive industry is seeing the rising significance of zero-emission vehicles and carbon-neutral manufacturing processes. Customers today know about environmental issues and how automotives contribute to the problem. 

To counteract this, you can communicate about sustainable changes in your product, such as:

  • Alternative powertrains
  • Sustainable value chains
  • Digital protection and data security policies 

Take social responsibility seriously by creating transparency and accountability. Avoid making misleading and false claims. Instead, provide access to resources for customers to make informed purchases. 

If you're making an environmental claim, be specific and have unambiguous proof. 

The UK's complete list of Best Practice Principles for Automotive Ads is here.

Shift your automotive marketing into top gear

A successful automotive marketing strategy is backed by digital and traditional marketing strategies. But it boosts your revenue further when you stick with the customer throughout their journey. 

And that's what Driftrock helps you with. Our platform powers lead generation for 22 automotive industry brands and more than 500 dealerships including BMW, Mini, Honda and Land Rover, among others.

Driftrock cares about your customers as much as you do, working alongside you to increase ROI from your automotive marketing campaigns. Find out more by booking a demo.