Kathleen Kerwin What does an overflowing washing machine have to do with selling SUVs? Not much -- and everything, it turns out.
Ford's (F) Mercury division has tapped into a coveted base of young, female consumers using an offbeat online video series, "Meet the Lucky Ones", linked to its Web site (see BW, 05/23/05, "Mad Ave Is Starry-Eyed Over Net Video").
"Lucky Ones" takes a distinctly soft-sell approach, hoping to hook viewers on its oddball soap opera and gradually lure them into seeking out more product information. A quirky intro video sets up a group of loosely connected tales of 10 characters. By posting a new episode about each of them every week for one month, Mercury kept visitors coming back to its Web site for the latest installment.
HIPPER BRAND? The 35 episodes, which feature a hypnotic, dirge-like soundtrack, barely mention the Mercury Mariner crossover sport-utility that the series was created to plug. The episodes include one about a dysfunctional marriage, done as a voice-over narration that uses that malfunctioning washing machine as its sole visual.
Mercury says the tactic works. The "Lucky Ones" series has attracted 500,000 viewers, two-thirds of whom clicked through to view pages devoted to the crossover SUV. In late 2004 the chance to enter a sweepstakes to win a Mariner sweetened the experience. And site visitors could go on to schedule a test drive or request a dealer price quote. Some 500 Mariners have been sold as a result, according to Linda Perry-Lube, Lincoln-Mercury manager for e-business and consumer relationships.
Until recently, Mercury's online efforts consisted of the usual banner ads that closely mimicked what the carmaker uses on TV or in print. Last November it unveiled the new Mariner, aimed at an audience much younger that the division's typical 60-year-old. At the same time it began a broader campaign to reposition Mercury as a more youthful, hipper brand.
"STICKIER" CONTENT. Mercury was ready to stick its neck out. "For people who still believe that Mercury is their grandfather's Grand Marquis, we needed to do something different," says Perry-Lube.
The brand is aiming for "the independent consumer who likes to discover new things," she says. "We wanted to create lean-in advertising" that coaxes customers with entertaining content, rather than bludgeoning them with an ad message.
"Because we didn't hit them over the head" with advertising, she adds, "we were stickier." Visitors to the site who watched the "Lucky Ones" video went on to look at an average of eight pages of product content, vs. the two-page average for other viewers.
Perry-Lube says the campaign succeeded in attracting the younger, female consumers it sought: "We really hit the sweet spot with our customers." Sixty percent of "Lucky Ones" viewers who provided information about themselves to Mercury were female. Of them, 26% were age 21 to 43, and 28% were 35 to 44 years old. The average Mariner customer is 14 years younger than the traditional Mercury buyer.
IT'S GOT "LEGS." Online interactive video advertising not only reached the ad-shy customers that Mercury was trying to target but it was also cost-effective, says Perry-Lube. While she won't discuss actual dollar figures, she says that producing the entire 35 minutes of "Meet the Lucky Ones" cost the same as making a single 30-second television spot. And of course, once the video was produced, the cost of offering it via the Web site was negligible, versus the high expense of repeatedly airing an ad on TV.
On top of this, Mercury is finding its series has what Hollywood calls "legs." Although the sweepstakes ended at yearend, "the site has been so popular that we haven't taken it down," Perry-Lube says. Mercury showed a composite video at Sundance and has plans to show a teaser in movie theaters directing viewers to the "Lucky Ones" Web site.
A new campaign with Amazon.com (AMZN) will insert the full series on DVD (with a Mariner promotion added) in the package with every DVD ordered from the online retailer between mid-June and mid-July, she says. If enough consumers click through to the Mercury site, then the carmaker's marketers might indeed be the lucky ones. Kerwin is a BusinessWeek senior correspondent in Detroit