Car makers drive up Net activity

Websites are about to become a standard feature in the marketing strategy of car manufacturers targeting the UK.

Toyota unveiled its first UK Website to support the launch of the Avensis model on January 2. This came within a fortnight of Rover rolling out four sites to push its range on the Web.

Both companies join Ford, Fiat, Vauxhall and Volkswagen among mass-market car makers already targetting UK consumers via the Web.

Rover and Toyota report positive response to the sites. According to Paul Philpott, general manager of vehicle marketing at Toyota (GB), the Avensis site – designed by IS Solutions – attracted 5,500 user sessions in the first week of operation. Visitors spent an average of ten minutes on the site and just under 900 surfers requested further sales information.

“These should be good quality sources of retail leads,” says Philpott, who confirms that Toyota is planning to roll out an “all-embracing” Toyota UK site later this year.

“Internet marketing has an obvious demographic fit for Toyota and other motor manufacturers,” says Philpott. “The target is 30 to 40-years-old, predominantly male – much the same as a Web audience.”

Rover’s sites are designed by new media agency AKQA, which already handles online work for parent company BMW.

The sites (www.landrover.com, www.mg-cars.com, www.rovercars.com, and www.rovergroup.com) contain a range of pricing and product details, interactive colour and trim selectors, interactive test-drive games and contact details for the group’s dealership network.

Rover’s existing Mini site was developed by APL through Ammirati Puris Lintas before AKQA’s account win in June and has also been integrated into the site.

According to Ajaz Ahmed, director of AKQA: “Rover arrived on the Web after some of its rivals, but this has allowed the company to catch up and overtake its rivals in terms of the functionality of its Websites.”

He refuses to comment on the value of the project. But rival Web agencies estimate Rover is spending over 500,000 on the roll-out.

And more activity is planned. Rover’s “Phase Two” will see creative upgrades on the site and online advertising and sponsorship support. It will also see full integration of the sites with Rover’s dealer network, which will allow customers to book test drives, arrange finance, and ultimately book servicing and source spares online.

In essence, says Rover Group’s marketing director Martin Runnacles, the sites are there to “build a dialogue with existing drivers and prospective customers”, who will then deal with Rover’s UK and overseas dealership networks.

But with the launch of increasingly sophisticated 24-hour “virtual show rooms”, will the traditional dealership come into the equation at all? The growth of “virtual” dealerships, such as AutoByTel in the US, unencumbered by high overheads and limited geographical markets, is beginning to dent the sales volumes of established operators.

So do British car dealers need to go online? According to Philpott, the eventual emergence of “virtual” dealerships in the UK may not be out of the question. But most manufacturers will try to ensure their existing dealerships benefit from embracing electronic marketing.

“We want to get to a stage where you can get into a local dealer’s own site through our site, so that consumers can source local dealer offers and get closer to the point of sale,” says Philpott.

“People like to touch and feel what they are buying,” he adds. “Everyone wants the test drive and personal touch offered by the traditional dealership before they buy.”

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