As the battle to attract first-time and younger car buyers escalates to hyper-competitive levels in China and India, marketers have taken their message where it is most likely to be heard-online.
Car manufacturers across the region have been spending more of their advertising budgets online than ever before and scaling back their presence in traditional media such as television.
Car websites may still be the equivalent of a product catalogue, but marketers are finding that social media, and in particular forums, are where new vehicles are given their personality.
"If you look at Ford's Fiesta launch in China, the overwhelming majority of people said they heard about the car online. The campaign locked onto social media from QQ to viral e-cards from the start," says Bryce Whitwam, GM of Wunderman Shanghai.
Meanwhile, General Motors' (GM) campaign to promote the launch of the Chevrolet Cruze in China - a direct competitor to the Ford Focus - invited consumers to log on and personalise their own version of the car using innovative customisation tools. In a 'macho' initiative rarely seen in China, netizens could enter their 'pimped-up rides' in online races or share their designs with friends. It didn't hurt that Wentworth Miller, star of US television drama Prison Break and a personality with a massive China fan base, was the face of the campaign. As with other industries, celebrity endorsement remains a powerful advertising tool for vehicles on the mainland.
"The car industry can really innovate online," Whitwam says. "It's where the automotive opinion leaders share their views. In China, which is now the world's biggest car market, cars are the number one discussion topic online. Anyone who can work out how to take advantage of that is going to be in a seriously strong position."
According to Georgia Zhuang, head of auto research at Nielsen China, discussion is being fuelled by increasingly "rational" consumers who are relatively neutral to Government incentives and take their time in forming purchase decisions. Particularly in top-tier markets, Zhuang notes that aesthetic appeal is often more of a consideration than safety and performance features.
Doug Molloy, international business director for JWT Shanghai, claims the Indian car market is taking a similar path.
"Again, you have a huge first-time buyer market and digital campaigns are the key to that, although communications in India are much more emotionally driven than in China," he says.
Across China, brands have begun to target sales in China's lower-tier cities, which represent massive long-term growth potential.
Small cars remain the star performers, accounting for 80 per cent of new car sales, but the Cruze campaign took the message beyond the country's top 10 cities and into the wider world of the top 50.
"At this local level, newspapers and radio play a bigger roll in advertising," says Malcolm Hanlon, managing partner for ZenithOptimedia Asia-Pacific. "But here we are finding that the domestic Chinese car brands are very effective. They have lower prices and good local knowledge.
Nationalism has also been quite well used by local brands. BYD also really exploited its relationship with Warren Buffet to good effect."
Outside of the mega growth markets of China and India, the industry witnessed dark days. Toyota retains its position at the head of the table despite potentially catastrophic safety concerns, although its equity has shrunk considerably in developed markets and in particular at home. Luxury marques also suffered, and were forced to devise clever ways to shift stock.
In one example, Mercedes set out to sell 2,421 cars in 60 days in Melbourne, ahead of the launch of its new E-Class. Developed by Clemenger BBDO, online banner ads featured a ticking clock made of the cars. At every tick, a car drove off screen, creating a heightened sense of urgency among customers toying with making a purchase.
The initiative managed to shift the excess without screaming 'fire-sale', and the brand's Australian website became the most visited in the luxury car market that month.
Top 10 car
This article was originally published as part of the 2010 Top 1000 Brands report.