New vehicle launches are some of the most exciting events in the auto business. For someone like me who works on the marketing end, there's nothing that gets the creative juices flowing or brings out the daredevil quite like a launch. But unveiling a new model, a product that represents the culmination of years of work by thousands of people, is just about the most stressful thing in the world if you are the one responsible for making it a success.
I have to admit, that while I love my current work as a consultant, I get nostalgic for being back inside an auto company when I see a new car launch in progress. Truth be told, my own expectations can be pretty high and sometimes they fall pretty flat.
However, I did just run across a launch tactic that made me smile. For those of you less familiar with the behind-the-scenes of a car launch, they almost always include a "ride and drive" event held primarily for the automotive press. This gives media people a sneak peak at the new product a few months before the public introduction. The idea is to get the writers excited and inspired to write great things about your vehicle. The catch is there is usually an "embargo" on these events, meaning that journalists are asked not to share any information about the vehicle or their experience until a stated date. This way no one gets a "scoop" and no one gets to talk about the car until the car company says so. This is all usually orchestrated to coincide with the on-sale date of the new product.
In this day of Twitter and Facebook, you can imagine how much more nervous the manufacturers are about losing their control over the information flow. So the idea of allowing anyone that hasn't legally signed their rights away or someone just off the street to, gasp, see and drive the vehicle before it arrives in showrooms is almost unheard of. Almost.
Last month, Infiniti invited its Facebook fans to RSVP for the new QX SUV media preview being held in Louisville, Kentucky. It offered the first 30 to respond the opportunity to do a similar product overview and driving event as the journalists, provided they were willing to cover their own expenses, including insurance. (FYI, On these sorts of trips, the journalists -- almost without exception -- have their way paid by the car company.) This was actually the second time Infiniti has done something like this, having tried it earlier in the year with the launch of its M sedan.
Now to be fair, we may see new vehicles at auto shows well before the cars are produced. The auto magazines and blogs are also famous for publishing photos of camouflaged vehicles well in advance of these launch events. But this is different from being invited to drive a new vehicle, to be one of the first to drive it, and be encouraged to tell others about it. When I was launching the Ford Focus we held contests for one or two lucky fans to come and see the car but this was really more of a publicity stunt. Infiniti, however, has taken it to the next level.
"I have been pretty impressed with the passion these folks have had to attend such an event, and it's gratifying to see the real-time posts and Tweets while they are there," said Kyle Bazemore, an Infiniti spokeman. I asked him whether this would become a standard part of new car launches and he said that he has every intention of continuing these programs.
This sort of marketing effort can be risky for a car company. I am reminded of a situation a few years back when GM launched a special Web site that allowed anyone to create a video about a new model and post it for others to see. As you might recall, a few industrious haters created videos explaining how GM vehicles were gas-guzzlers and were destroying the environment. It's situations like this that have made automakers notoriously conservative about managing their marketing messages.
That said, I am truly impressed with Infiniti's efforts. It is also allowing owners to rate their products and write reviews on the official Infiniti Web site. Infiniti does verify that the writer is an actual owner, but other than that it is a completely open platform that Bazemore swears will not be edited, barring profanity and illegal content, of course. So while I am a constant critic of the fact that most car companies are not customer-centric, this is a great step in the right direction and one I hope other manufacturers adopt.