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The Digital Traditionalist

the rundown

Land Rover North America Brand VP Kim McCullough knows digital technologies are reshaping the way people shop for cars. To ensure Land Rover's storied brand remains relevant, she is translating the auto showroom experience into new social and mobile innovations. After more than doubling digital ad spend to 35 percent of the marketing mix, and with a 15 percent year-on-year sales increase in 2012, the results are beginning to speak for themselves.

Enter Land Rover's North American headquarters and you might think you've stumbled into an auto showroom. Inside the suburban New Jersey building, a black Range Rover Sport is parked next to a Jaguar sport sedan. Merchandise cases display Land Rover t-shirts, hats, and mugs while industry awards and framed car photos line the walls.

It's the kind of scene familiar to anybody who’s been to an auto dealership. But as technology alters the way consumers shop for cars, automakers are realizing showrooms alone won't generate sales.

Showrooms Go Digital

Land Rover isn't jettisoning its showrooms; instead, the company is bringing the engagement online through video, social sharing, display and search ads, and mobile sites. "Most people first experience auto brands online now," says Kim McCullough, Land Rover North America's Brand Vice President. "Showroom visits are down. People are making up their minds about brands in other ways, whether through friends or experiences online. By the time people get to a showroom, they already know what they want."

New research from Google, TNS, and Polk confirms that digital is changing the purchase path for auto shoppers, with influential brand moments now stretching across a cycle that encompasses pre-market, in-market, and post-market phases rather than the traditional launch period. This cycle of ‘constant consideration’ requires marketers to harness the unique opportunities afforded by digital brand-building to win all the moments that matter.

The digital shift could have automakers rattled, particularly premier marques like Land Rover, which prizes white-glove service and safeguarding its image. But McCullough is sanguine about the evolving market. Sitting in her corner office surrounded by memorabilia, including an iconic green Land Rover logo, it's clear she appreciates her employer's heritage. McCullough, who first worked for Land Rover in the late 1990s before moving on to other auto marketing jobs, says the company's culture lured her back: "There's something about this brand and the way it has always been true to its core that is really appealing." Her aim now is to uphold that legacy while adopting digital tools.

Engagement: Fuel for Leads

So far, McCullough has been able to strike this balance. Since starting her second Land Rover stint in March 2011, she has orchestrated the successful launch of a new vehicle, Range Rover Evoque, and is directing the rollout of Land Rover's revamped flagship Range Rover. Both campaigns employed digital innovations new to Land Rover. McCullough, who honed her digital skills in the 2000s at Toyota, has also more than doubled Land Rover's digital spending (from 15 percent of the marketing mix to 35 percent), expanded its digital and social media staff, and relaunched several of the company's core consumer websites, including its YouTube channel, which currently boasts over three million views.

These moves are feeding an overall resurgence. Following decades of ownership shuffles, the UK-based automaker has found steady support in India's Tata Motors, which acquired Land Rover and sister company Jaguar from Ford Motor Co. in 2008. The resulting company, Jaguar Land Rover, is now profitable and growing, thanks to strong Land Rover demand. Land Rover sales in the US – the brand's third-largest market after China and the UK – increased 15 percent year-over-year in 2012.

To sustain that momentum, Land Rover is boosting its presence on social sites, where it can directly connect with owners and enthusiasts. Land Rover is active on Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, and added Pinterest and Tumblr last year. These are Land Rover's always-on platforms, maintained year-round regardless of the company's product cycle. Recognizing the value of video, McCullough redesigned Land Rover's YouTube channel in 2012. The update replaced YouTube's standard, chronological layout with videos organized by Land Rover model and a window showing the company's latest tweets and Facebook posts. Land Rover says the more intuitive layout has boosted time spent on the site.

Key metrics point to results. A 2012 Google Analytics report found referrals from the company's social channels were 195 percent more likely to turn into solid leads than visitors to Land Rover's website who arrived from non-social sources. "When people have a chance to engage with our brand and attach a little more meaning and connection to it, we are seeing them transition to a lead," McCullough notes.

Engagement is crucial for smaller companies like Land Rover, which are increasingly seeing the value in flipping the traditional marketing funnel – using social channels to target their most likely-to-engage consumers first, rather than reaching out to the broadest possible audience via traditional media. Leading with media that allows for greater engagement measurement means brands know when they have a hit, and can make better strategic decisions about how to deploy the rest of their marketing budget. This is especially important for an automaker like Land Rover: "Dollar for dollar, we have to be very smart about what we're doing," McCullough admits.

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Wheels of Innovation

To encourage innovation, McCullough applies a 70/20/10 rule to her budget, allocating 70 percent of resources to tried-and-true forms of marketing, 20 percent to experimental initiatives from the previous year that show promise, and 10 percent to new ventures. The framework allows McCullough's team to explore, especially in social and mobile, with limited risk.

Land Rover has tested out a relatively new type of Google ad called social annotation, which mentions Land Rover's nearly 1.1 million Google+ followers in the company’s search results. Google’s ‘custom annotation’ feature lets Land Rover insert short quotes from, say, an awards committee or a positive review into ads, as well. According to Land Rover, these ‘third-party validations’ have increased click-through rates to its website by as much as 14 times since it began testing the ads last winter.

Another smart investment has been mobile. Land Rover overhauled its mobile site in 2012. The upgrade added a number of practical features for both shoppers and owners, including vehicle photos and videos, and information about Land Rover's driving schools and roadside assistance. After the site went live, Land Rover started buying Google ‘Bid by Distance’ ads that surfaced Land Rover's site when prospective buyers searched terms like ‘luxury SUV’ on mobile devices near Land Rover dealers. The ads resulted in an 87 percent higher click-through-rate to Land Rover’s mobile site.

McCullough says Land Rover continues to monitor how its consumers are using mobile to shop. A JD Power survey released last year identified Land Rover buyers as particularly mobile-savvy. Of 33 auto brands, Land Rover owners were the most likely to access the internet from their smartphones and use apps for new vehicle purchases.

The New Online Launch

Though active year round, Land Rover ramps up its digital spending during launches for both customer acquisition and branding. The company's 2011 introduction of Evoque, a fuel-efficient crossover, relied heavily on new media campaigns to attract young, urban buyers. A series of events built anticipation, kicking off nearly a year before Evoque's on-sale date. First came a teaser site, followed by an urban journey-themed mobile app, and blog posts and videos from cultural influencers, known as ‘City Shapers.’ To play up Evoque's personalization options, Land Rover also released a ‘choose your own adventure’-style interactive film and, in May 2011, staged an interactive concert that streamed music from three simultaneous performances located in New York, Milan, and Shanghai.

“It's important all through the year to be active in all elements of the purchase funnel: Awareness down to purchase," says McCullough. "When we're not on broadcast TV, we use digital to expand in that upper funnel area."

Land Rover's most recent launch, for its new Range Rover, will also follow a multi-step digital campaign. An interactive takeover ad promoting the Range Rover will appear on YouTube on February 25. To extend the ad's reach, Land Rover is coordinating same-day takeovers of YouTube's mobile and tablet homepages. Finally, Land Rover will deploy the ad as an expandable 'Lightbox' ad within the Google display network, which will target consumers who fit the Range Rover buyer profile over several weeks.

In addition, Land Rover has developed a video series in partnership with YouTube. The 10-part series chronicles adventurer/YouTube personality Peter Bragiel driving cross-country in the new Range Rover. Land Rover will release new videos weekly in February and March on both its own and Bragiel's YouTube channels. Like the Lightbox ads, the videos are geared to spark interest in the new car long after the TV spots and homepage takeovers have stopped running.

Despite its social and digital successes, some time-honored practices endure at Land Rover. McCullough varies her approach based on vehicle model, audience and launch phase. While much of the all-new Range Rover's marketing was digital, the vehicle's pre-launch, in fall 2012, focused on ‘super-loyalists’ – aficionados who had owned at least five Range Rovers. In the run-up to the new Range Rover's introduction, Land Rover treated this select group to posh dinners at exclusive venues and early looks at the vehicle. The events were an opportunity to reward Land Rover's best customers and to build pre-sale interest. Afterwards, McCullough sent attendees handwritten thank-you notes.

Indeed, for all her modern thinking, she’s clear that Land Rover’s established values will endure. "As our owners always say: 'Don't change it; just make it better.'"

Written by Elizabeth Woyke

"When people have a chance to engage with our brand and attach a little more meaning and connection to it, we are seeing them transition to a lead."