Changing Course: How Three Car Companies Are Upgrading Their Image


Who can resist a good makeover story? Think Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion,” Sandy in “Grease,” and Cinderella in … well, “Cinderella.” Just as we root for the outcast or the underdog, automotive companies like Buick, MINI Cooper, and Toyota are playing on our affinity for comebacks and renewal. No longer are car commercials filled with a laundry list of features and awards. Now, they want us to relate to their vehicles on a human level.

Here’s the new face of automotive advertising:

Buick – Not Your Grandpa’s Car

Buick’s slogan might as well have been “Luxury for the elderly” … until 2014, that is. Known as the choice car of tapioca enthusiasts everywhere, Buick desperately needed to turn around their geriatric image. So, they launched their “Is that a Buick?” campaign, and it has been noticed in a big way.

Rather than ignoring their reputation, Buick embraces and then pokes fun at their old image. And more than just enjoying the gentle humor, consumers are converting. Buick has jumped to the head of the pack over at GM, and the success of the new image has led Buick to commit to adding two new vehicles to the lineup with Cascada, their new convertible, and Envision, a new SUV that bridges the gap between the Encore and Enclave.

Their messaging has transitioned from focusing on features to refreshing their overall identity. Even this new campaign has evolved from suburban families in 2014 to a young, city-dwelling cast in 2016 that’s closer to their target audience. Although they haven’t abandoned their drive to be a contender in the luxury market, they’ve taken steps to make their brand approachable among a broader demographic, building their customer base before tackling other brand issues.

MINI Cooper – You Don’t Know Me

MINI Cooper’s approach to changing the public’s opinions of their vehicles is more confrontational in an effort to elicit a response. It’s not rebellious—it’s defiant. This ad isn’t afraid to get a little in your face about the labels that have been imposed upon them: “chick car,” “gay car,” “cute car,” “slow car,” etc. In fact as the ad states, “This car doesn’t care what you call it.”

The MINI campaign features several well-known faces, including Serena Williams, Abby Wambach, Randy Johnson, T-Pain, Harvey Keitel, and others. These people know what it means to #DefyLabels.

The campaign carries through to the MINI website where you can watch interviews of each spokesperson and learn about their own experiences with labels. The campaign is MINI’s effort to change their vehicles’ image, put a face to the brand, and reach beyond their typical demographic of single young professionals. Despite their best efforts to expand and change their reputation, they may be missing the mark. The look and message of the ad still appeals to the same audience segment they’ve already captured.

Toyota – Criminal Activity Can Be Eco-Friendly

Unlike Buick and MINI Cooper, Toyota doesn’t have an image problem, so why are they on our list? The public loves their lineup. Except for the Toyota Prius. Over the past several years, marketing for the Prius has been consistent (read: boring). You could bank on young couples or families outside with their dog, all set to a feel-good song. But their squeaky-clean image is getting a little gritty in their latest campaign featuring bank robbers and a car chase. Prius pokes a bit of fun at themselves, like Buick, with playful dialogue while managing to show driving maneuvers and a few premium features.

Although Prius doesn’t highlight their brand perception in the same way that MINI did, Toyota knows the reputation the Prius has cultivated among the motoring public. This ad campaign aims to refute consumers’ expectations that the car is slow, tame, and mostly for soccer moms. Toyota keeps up the momentum of this bad-boy image with follow-up commercials and a website headline of “Let’s shatter all expectations.” They know what consumers think of the car, so now it’s time to make over the Prius image and add a little edge.

We’re Loving the Comeback

Adding new vehicles to their lineups can only take Buick, MINI, and Toyota so far. Much like Eliza and Sandy, not much has changed below the surface. What has changed for these car companies—apart from converting ad momentum into increased sales—is the way they’ve steered the public’s perceptions. The right advertising campaign positions these old products in a new way, reaching the audience on a human level rather than lulling us to sleep with a list of features.

By Lauren Carmer

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