As disruptive as the next 10 years will be in terms of vehicle design and engineering, the upheaval in areas like automotive marketing and brand building will be even greater. Just as entire business models weren’t possible in the pre-smartphone era, powerful new advertising and promotional platforms, two of which didn’t even exist 10 years ago, are beginning to dominate the brand messaging space.
Instagram and TikTok are the most disruptive of the newcomers, at least compared to “OG” players like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. And the statistics are shocking. Instagram hit a billion users less than 10 years after it launched, while TikTok has proven even more explosive, hitting a billion users this past January — 5 years after launch. No industry can afford to ignore these numbers, but how can old school automotive brands, many of them dating back to the early 1900s, effectively leverage these frenzied, new-age platforms?
That’s the greatest challenge, and opportunity, platforms like Instagram and TikTok offer. With user demographics any CMO would kill for, the desire to resonate with these audiences is only eclipsed by the complexities involved in making a genuine connection. Studies show traditional advertising as one of the least effective methods for reaching people under 30, while “influencer marketing” has proven to be among the most powerful.
Dodge’s current “Chief Donut Maker” campaign will attempt to create a relatable social media star from an unknown enthusiast, while established automotive personalities like Doug DeMuro or Tim ”Shmee” Burton already have established brands with a dedicated following. Is there a happy medium? Can rising social media influencers effectively introduce old brands to young consumers? I spoke to two marketing specialists in this blossoming field to get their take.
Laura Filipowicz is the founder of Z Star Digital, an agency that specializes in merging the gap between creators, influencers and brands. She describes her agency’s approach as “using storytelling built around a brand and experiences, to create organic content” and she’s already combined family travel experiences with brands like Kia to tell user experience stories. But she feels the combination of Generation Z and social media channels like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok is going to dwarf everything that’s come before it.
According to Laura, “Lifestyle and travel are taking advantage, but automotive isn’t really using this option, yet, and they’re likely missing out. These younger influencers are already thinking about cars in their late teens, even if they aren’t buying. They are definitely thinking about this by 17, and how they can get their freedom after they hit 16 and don’t always want their parents around.” She feels automakers should focus on creating relatable brand awareness, which they can do by integrating/aligning Gen Z's day-to-day organic experiences with their own brand identity.
One example of the speed and power of rising social media stars is represented by the Sturniolo Triplets, three 18-year-old siblings that began broadcasting from their parents’ minivan less than 18 months ago. They hit 700,000 subscribers in March of 2022 and doubled it to 1.5 million in April. Laura started working with them at 15,000 subscribers in 2021, after her 17-year-old social media influencer and talent acquisition advisor for Z Star Digital, Madi Filipowicz, spotted them. Their meteoric growth can be chalked up to an extremely genuine, relatable energy in a world that feels increasingly duplicitous and driven by ulterior motives.
Of the three brothers, only Matt has his license today, but Chris and Nick are planning to catch up soon. The automotive atmosphere of their videos would seem a no-brainer for a minivan maker trying to boost awareness for a fading vehicle segment. Like many sub-20-year-olds, Matt, Chris and Nick aren’t really automotive enthusiasts. For them, a car represents freedom and self-expression, not the passion or lifestyle seen in Doug DeMuro’s and Shmee’s videos. That means you won’t see them quoting performance numbers or dreamily describing body lines, but it also means they represent a much wider percentage of potential car buyers, particularly young, mainstream car buyers. And all three intend to buy vehicles soon, and their choices will undoubtedly become topics of future videos.
Brands seeking more traditional automotive enthusiasts aren’t out of luck in the youth-dominated world of social media influencers. Will Collette, or “BilllCo” as he’s known online, is a 28-year-old marketer with a passion for automobiles that rivals Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld. As an Air Force captain fresh out of the service he scraped enough money together to buy a V6 Roush Mustang with 300 horsepower, then added aftermarket parts to boost it to over 500 hp, along with a distinctive exterior “wrap” to ensure it stood out at car events and in social media posts.
His first job out of the military was in sales, but he realized his automotive interests had to be more than just a hobby. Developing his photography skills led to a social media feed stuffed with cars and car events, which evolved into his own marketing platform and a YouTube creator house called the GearBox that Will shares with two other automotive influencers. He’s also graduated from the V6 Mustang to an Audi R8 in his latest role as Head of Marketing and Content Creation for Voodoo.
Voodoo describes itself as producing “the world’s finest product for supercars and hypercars.” Its webpage features custom exhaust systems for Audi R8s, Ferrari 488s and multiple McLaren and Lamborghini models. According to Will, “Voodoo took a big risk on me because they weren’t sure they could afford an in-house creator. Yet this is a great testament to how important it is to have somebody on a daily basis creating content for you and sharing it across platforms. A number of customers have come in strictly because of Instagram, or even TikTok, to spend tens of thousands of dollars with Voodoo because of the content I’m making.”
Will admits he thought it would be more of a secondary effect, where people would be familiar with the name from his social media efforts, and then come in, but he’s been surprised to see how many customers come in and say, “I’m here because of the TikTok that I follow” or “I’m here because of the Instagram story I saw yesterday.” That kind of ROI is very measurable and immediate, though he’s also got traditional metrics, like views and engagements on Voodoo’s YouTube, Instagram and TikTok pages, to confirm the brand’s growth in awareness. Will is producing 2-5 TikToks a day, which he converts to YouTube shorts and Instagram reels, plus he creates two 8-10 minute Voodoo vlogs a week.
Even with the rapid shift toward social media influencers over the past 12-24 months it’s clear we’re at the start of a long journey. The platforms are still evolving, the influencers are still discovering what resonates with followers, and the brands are still trying to understand where the opportunities exist and how to best leverage them.
But one aspect of this brave new world is already crystal clear: there’s no going back. As stated earlier, the numbers don’t lie, and if you’re a brand (not just automotive) trying to find its way in this rapidly-changing business environment, you better figure it out quickly — or at least jump in and start the “fail fast” process.