Jon Thomas
Jon Thomas
Communications Director

3 Carmakers Embracing Brand Stories

My first car was a gray 1987 Honda Accord LXi hatchback. Well, it was actually a two-toned gray, since I never bothered to get the replacement panels painted after a fender bender (primer gray was close enough).

I bought the car using the money I earned scooping ice cream and washing dishes at Brigham’s restaurant the two years before. It was a stick shift, and since I didn’t know how to drive a stick yet, my mom had to test-drive it as I sat in the passenger seat. I remember that test-drive vividly. Supposedly it had great gas mileage and shifted like butter. I didn’t pay much attention. I was on cloud nine because I knew this would be my car, and I was dreaming of the possibilities.

I owned it for three great years, and boy, I could tell you some stories. Eventually the car broke down one too many times, and it wasn’t worth it to fix. My mom took a picture of the car as it was driven away on a flatbed. I still have that picture somewhere. 

Our lives are filled with material things often sold to us by faceless corporations with which we share no real emotional relationship. Many of these products are mundane and simply serve a need. Paper towels, milk, breath mints—it’s hard to create strong bonds between brand and consumer. But consumers have a connection to their cars that they have with few other products.

Our cars define a certain time in our lives. They transport us to family vacations, first dates or that night out with friends that turned into an adventure. 

Our cars become an integral part of our lives, to a point where we depend on them as we do on our coworkers, friends and family. We know their interiors like the backs of our hands, exactly when they’re going to switch gears and all their little idiosyncrasies. Let’s face it: we even name them.

Stories from brand advocates are incredibly powerful. We (as consumers) trust online opinions of complete strangers more than we trust any form of editorial content or advertising. So it’s no wonder that brands like Volkswagen, Toyota and Subaru all have gone beyond just planting tweets and Facebook comments on billboards and have launched digital platforms with which to aggregate their customers’ stories.

Let’s take a look:

1. Volkswagen

After knocking it out of the park with its 2011 Super Bowl commercial, “The Force”, to the tune of nearly 55 million views, the German automaker has committed to unearthing the brand stories of its owners in a project called Why VW?. The site, which features a matrix of content spaces that include videos and articles, allows owners to add their stories about “where they’ve been and where they’re headed.” Currently it features some impressive tales, including one about an Argentinean man (pictured at the top of this article) who drove his 1981 Beetle from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, as well as a very smart sponsorship of a UK man who plans to travel across the United States to raise awareness of Parkinson’s and funds for research into the disease (VW donated two vehicles to transport his team and equipment). The page is a bit crowded with noncustomer, semi-promotional stories, but the campaign is still in its early stages; there’s a lot of potential for unique, interesting owner stories to emerge.

2. Subaru

Subaru was ahead of the curve with its embrace of brand storytelling. Its brand site has featured a section called Dear Subaru that since 2009 has housed short stories by owners. The site was launched as part of a multichannel campaign across print and digital, but the story hub has lived on long after the paid media ended. 

While looking somewhat dated, the site is completely owner-centric, featuring stories (including photos) submitted by Subaru owners. The only promotional portion is a section showing the print ads, all of which include real stories. Who knew they made tents for the top of your car? The site shows the enthusiasm and passion of Subaru owners as well as implicitly promotes features of the brand, like safety, durability, versatility, storage and all-wheel drive. 

3. Toyota Camry

In spring 2012, Toyota launched the Camry Effect, in which Camry owners could share their stories. The site is the most robust of the three, very well designed (it was a FWA Site of the Day) and featuring numerous stories about the “effect” Toyota Camrys have had on their  owners’ lives. The site does have some promotional content but weighs heavily in favor of customer stories. 

This wasn’t a short-lived effort, either. The digital component has been live for more than six months, and the recent TV campaign has featured real Camry owners telling their stories in their own words.

Embracing Real Stories

Auto manufacturers certainly aren’t the only brands utilizing customer stories. Facebook has been gathering stories of how its almost one billion user base is using the social platform in extraordinary ways. Tumblr has taken a different approach but is still embracing storytelling from around the web using Storyboard, Tumblr editors’ daily selection of the platform’s best blogs and stories  that has included such brand sponsors as New York Magazine.

What all this means is that brands are starting to realize why richer content, particularly emotive storytelling, is in many ways a smarter investment than simply putting all their eggs into paid advertising. These efforts aren’t low budget, but we can safely assume that they cost a fraction of what a 30-second Super Bowl ad would. Plus, owned and earned media have the opportunity to work harder than paid media. Nielsen reports that the impact of a brand website is three times greater than that of a paid digital ad.

We’ve outlined some interesting things brands are doing with user-generated content, but the efforts of these automakers to encourage the sharing of personal stories are more likely to include brand evangelists and super-fans—those who share a brand’s content most often. As we move further into the post-advertising age, brands have to be progressing to the realm of true, compelling, long-lasting storytelling.

Do you have some stories to share about your first car?

  • Kat Rags

    A mint-green Grenada…randomly stalled out on a regular basis. Learned to push it off the road myself!

    I love this idea – story telling as a branding tool. While I have seen some of this in action, I hadn’t realized its growing popularity. Does story telling work for new businesses who are trying to find brand recognition or only for more developed brands? As a content provider, I use stories as hooks to interest readers in an article or blog (Jon did it beautifully in this piece). How can smaller companies use this concept to grow their brand recognition?

  • Jon Thomas

    Some of the most powerful stories are from small brands with passionate customers. When you’re small, you can go the extra mile to wow them. Just think of the stories from visits to mom and pop shops. I remember buying great homemade jam during a road trip from a lady selling them on the grass at a random reststop. It was the best jam I’ve ever had. I even bought one for my mom who we were going to see. She was so sweet and the labels were hand-written.

    Create experiences so good that customers HAVE to share. As a smaller business, that’s usually the only way to make a big splash early on. If those stories are held in their hearts (and not shared yet) go find them!

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