Ford Goes Indie For Transit Connect, Teams With Pitchfork and Iamsound

Every five years or so, the Ford Motor Company readies what it likes to call “white-space vehicles,” brand-new cars without a direct category or competitor. For its latest offering, the 2014 Transit Connect Wagon, Ford identified the vehicle’s key consumer as the “impassioned indie,” a young individual passionate about about their hobbies and interests, and quickly turned to music to reach them.

But rather than going the route of, say, the Grammys or MTV Video Music Awards, where many autos buy ads to achieve quick scale, Ford started smaller -- it enlisted Pitchfork and indie label Iamsound’s in-house creative agency to help them create “Artist Connect,” a concert series hosted in L.A. with a trio of videos that premiered on Pitchfork.com in January.

A series of intimate shows were filmed at Mack Sennett Studios in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood last December, featuring the Transit Connect trucks as a backdrop to an otherwise high-tech music showcase, starring MS MR, Classixx and Guards. Performances from each band surrounds footage of how the boxy vehicles could play a practical part in an artist’s tour, with features like 180-degree swing-out doors, 130 cubic feet of cargo space and a flat load floor.
 
Aligning with cutting-edge music is territory previously mined by foreign autos like Kia and especially Scion, which has hosted an ambitious artist under-writing program since its launch in 2002. But making a niche genre like a priority platform for a domestic auto launch is a relative rarity, with Artist Connect expected to tee off a deeper partnership between Ford and Pitchfork set for 2014 built around the “impassioned indie” consumer.

“Impassioned indies want to be engaged on their terms where they are -- they’re not people who want to have advertising shoved in their faces,” says Minyang Jiang, brand manager of Ford’s Transit and Transit Connect vehicles. “We look to our partners to present and engage with their fans where their audiences are rather than us trying to go and talk to them. It’s out of respect.”
 
That strategy was shared by many in the automotive category, which ranked as the sixth largest in music events and festivals in 2013, surpassing hotels, soft drinks and insurance. Though General Motors, Kia Motors and Chrysler Group were more active in music and music events than years past, it was often with the goal of enhancing their brands’ relevance than getting drivers on the lot. Ford, incidentally, was live music’s sixth largest sponsor in 2013, with ongoing support of Bonnaroo and a new partnership with Live Nation that included another web series, in support of its Ford Fiesta vehicle.
 
Ford's Lincoln and GM's Cadillac, seeking to freshen up their stodgy perception, teamed with production company @radical.media for a pair of programs that put an emphasis on content creation. Lincoln partnered with Beck for a one-time performance of David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision,” footage of which has racked more than 1 million views on YouTube. And Cadillac recently sponsored a weekend of workshops and music for PBS’ “American Voices” concert series, held at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center in early November, featuring interviews and performances with acts like Josh Groban, Sara Bareilles and Renee Fleming.
 
“Brands like automotive tend to be part of a lifestyle, so we integrate them in a way that’s more lifestyle-oriented rather than purchase-oriented,” says Joe Killian, @radical’s executive producer and music impresario. “If the brand is part of that lifestyle, of course the purchase or engagement with that product happens. It’s part of that community rather than a specific call to action.”
 
Even Honda has embraced less “on-the-lot” marketing with its Honda Civic Tour, which had a lot to prove in its 12th year, both as a branded franchise with longevity rivaled only by the Vans Warped Tour, and as a marketing platform for Honda’s cars, which needed a fresh push to reach the 18-to-34 demographic.
 
“Ten years ago, the tour was very much about having big on-site displays and getting qualified leads we can forward to the [local] dealers,” says Tom Peyton, Honda’s associate VP of advertising. But in 2013, adds Honda’s manager of advertising Nick Lee, “It’s all about the social media aspect and engaging fans with on-screen texting and improving our brand awareness through Facebook likes.”
 
Once Maroon 5 signed on as the 2013 headliner, with support from Kelly Clarkson, ticket sales were up almost 70% year-over-year. The band played 31 dates to more than 435,000 ticket holders, making this year’s Honda Civic Tour the biggest to date, topping previous tours with Black Eyed Peas, Good Charlotte and Panic! At The Disco. Social engagements were up exponentially, too, with Twitter and Facebook followers up 70% and retweets up by 300%.

“Choosing the right band is critical,” says Lee, “and we’d had some good success with Maroon 5 previously, but finding a mass-appeal artist like them and leveraging Adam Levine’s stardom at the moment seemed to be on a pretty good trajectory.”
 
Autos have even become default music publishers, as Chevrolet recently tapped country singer Will Hoge and Warner/Chappell to create an original jingle for its Silverado trucks that could stand up to the musical legacy left by Bob Seger’s “Like A Rock.” Not only Hoge’s song “Strong” won out over dozens of submissions, it’s become a hit on its own merits, recently charting on Hot Country Songs. Molly Peck, Chevrolet’s director of advertising and sales promotions, will next look for music to play a lead role in its plans for the Grammys, Super Bowl and Olympics advertising in early 2014.

“You’re going to see a wide range of genres, which makes total sense for a brand like Chevrolet because we’re a wide range of vehicles,” she says. “Music is almost part and parcel to our creative -- one doesn’t work without the other.”