Autonomous cars are coming. Are marketers ready?

Every passing day brings new stories about advancement in the realm of self-driving vehicles.  Just this weekend, Ford announced that it had appointed the head of its autonomous vehicle unit to the CEO post (Automotive News, subscription required).  Now that a pillar of the auto industry has made a major step to prying our fingers off the steering wheel, how should marketers respond?

Courtesy of the Ford Motor Company

As always, remember your Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Don’t Panic!

Let’s ignore the obvious warnings for marketers currently in the automotive space; you all probably know far better than I how budgets and strategies will shift.  Instead, let’s think about everyone else. In no particular order:

What will drivers do once they no longer drive?  At the very least, we’ll have more people spending more time on their devices as they travel, so that means more digital inventory.  Ho hum.  However, it also means that we’ll have a whole new use case, the autonomous passenger.

It seems safe to say that between daypart programming and potential access to vehicle-specific screens, marketers will be able to direct messages to commuters (cue the tired “buzz my phone when I pass a Starbucks” idea).  Thinking more progressively, that in-car message could take the form of a commute-length video (BMW films may or may not work here) or even a two-parter with the punchline revealed on the way home.  For that matter, even good old billboards take on a new significance when the driver has more time to read.

Not just vehicles but branding vehicles.  Beyond the cars themselves, auto companies underwrite or flat-out produce a ton of events.  Will NASCAR  survive in a world with few to no drivers?  Professional sports get a lot of revenue and advertising support from auto brands, from the Chevy that GM gives to the World Series MVP to Mercedes-Benz’s tents at PGA events.  The loss of tobacco sponsorships nearly killed both NASCAR and Formula One.  Now imagine the same thing happening across all sports with the potential for reverberations in music and cultural events as well.  The entire sponsorship model may have to change.

We’ll need new go-to references for brands.  Perhaps this last point doesn’t mean much outside of a marketing department, but we’ve relied on car brands as shorthand for consumer attitudes and identities since someone called Buick “the doctor’s car.”  Currently, a strategist can put “drives a BMW” or “drives a Subaru” into the “target audience” section of a creative brief and everyone will know what that means.  What’ll we use now?  I vote for bicycle brands, but I suspect I find myself in the minority here.

On the bright side, we might not have the DMV to kick around for much longer.

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