I received a phone call from a business acquaintance I have not spoken to in at least two years. He told me that his client/employer is looking to do something different – something fun – with their marketing. I listened as he outlined a plan to put local bloggers into Mazda’s for sustained periods, cover the cost of gas and insurance for the duration of the experiment, all in exchange for an honest review of the car.
It seemed very familiar. I was certain I had heard of something similar before. I had recommended this very tactic to several of my own clients, only to have them tell me that it was not realistic or, “worth the effort.” I applauded my colleague for having gotten this far and told him I was happy to help.
Over the next few days I was introduced to Billy Martin, the Internet Director at Roger Beasley Auto Group. In the course of corresponding through email, I came across this communication from Billy that gave me a better idea of where they were going with this unique project:
After connecting with Billy and talking about the project a little further we came to the consensus that it worked well with three initial bloggers, since they had three cars, and have each blogger drive one car for a week, then meet at the dealership at the same time each week to have the cars refueled, detailed and then swapped. I was tasked with connecting Billy to the Austin Blogging Community. This was no easy task. Not because they are hard to find, but because they are so diverse and I respect and appreciate so many of them. Where would I start?
I may not know every blogger in town personally, but I certainly know enough to be at least two-degrees from them all, especially through social networks. Back in May 2011, I was invited, along with 29 other Austin bloggers, to a sneak preview of the Austin Auto Show by the folks at Ford (See George’s recap here and Wesley’s here)
At that event I made many new friends and reconnected with existing friends in the Austin blogging community. It was good fun and it made me wonder why we don’t see more events like this? Since making contact with Billy, I started to think of all these amazing folks and I set about making my own list of who I could make initial contact with for this very fun project.
My short list included the likes of Ilene Haddad, Wesley Faulkner, Eric & Brittany Highland, Kate Buck, Fernando Labastida, Katrina Tolentino, Blythe Jewell, Paul O’Brien, Heidi Gollub, Jen Wojcik, Lani Rosales, Melissa Lombard and many more! When I had reached 25 names I paused and started to send private messages via Facebook to see IF there was any interest (Duh!). Of the first few I contacted there was immediate interest so within the first five contacts, I had my participants.
It should be noted that I had asked to be one of the bloggers. I felt this was appropriate on several levels. One, I have two active blogs, this one and another on my personal site. Although they have been more active in years past, I am proud that my modest audience is predominantly based in Austin and would synchronize well with the overall objective to reach folks in the marketing range of Roger Beasley’s (heretofore known as RBM) shopping radius.
The second reason I felt I deserved to be one of the drivers was as a way to repay me for my time connecting RBM to the Austin blogosphere. I normally would never ask for remuneration for networking two parties, but in this case, it felt more like work as I was connecting them to several individuals. I wasn’t about to take the time to write a formal proposal (I knew it would be refused) and my time is very valuable – therefore I felt it justified.
My two companions on this odd journey would be Katrina Tolentino and Blythe Jewell. I’ve known both of these women for quite some time, and I have to say, their participation in this project was purely chance. They were the first to respond to the five original invitations I sent out. Perhaps I wanted them on this assignment, given that they are both wickedly sharp writers and well connected individuals. Perhaps I just like them so much I couldn’t see myself having any more fun with anyone else…who knows. All I know is, they were the first to respond.
I was the first to drive the, dare I say it, exquisite Mazda6. This was no ordinary Mazda6 however; it was the 2014 Mazda6 GT. “The Grand Touring version is Mazda’s top trim package and includes such niceties as heated leather seats, navigation, a Bose surround-sound stereo, and 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in all-season Dunlop SP Sport tires. The GT comes exclusively with Mazda’s six-speed automatic transmission and Skyactiv-G 2.5-liter I-4, which produces a competitive 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque.” – Motor Trend Magazine. An impressive 2.2-liter diesel comes later in the year and I could continue to bore you with the details or you could just read the Motor Trend article (Here).
I will say this about the 6 – this car could GO!
After getting a once-over by one of the nice folks at RBM, I was off. We have two cars in my family, a 2010 Toyota Yaris and a 2001 Toyota 4Runner and I could be driving either one on any given day. I enjoy driving both, but I especially enjoy the small size for getting in to and out of Austin on the West side. If you’ve ever been on 24th, 35/38th or 45th on your way to/from Mopac you can appreciate what I mean (or on 2222 or on the road to Volente or…). The Mazda6 was actually slightly larger than the 4Runner and this surprised me. It handled well, but my first test wasn’t the racetrack or the notorious Austin I-35 highway traffic – It was the drive thru at Wendy’s. Upon pulling up to the window I inhaled deeply (as I was starving), taking in the odorous essence of fast food wafting into the car and spoke the words, “French Fries…”
The girl passing my lunch-in-a-bag to me paused for a moment, hanging out the drive thru window, inhaled deeply and uttered the words, “New Car Smell…” it was a good moment. That’s when I noticed the odometer. Exactly 100 miles. I smiled to the cashier feeling like the proud owner of a new car, knowing full well that it was a loaner.
That’s the amazing thing about driving a brand new car. It’s a powerful psychological motivator. All the fancy bells-and-whistles. The feel of the leather seats. The Bose sound system. The smooth, quiet ride. Somehow, it makes one feel like a better person. Accomplished. Whole. Worthy. This is what I was really looking forward to with this assignment and the Mazda6 did not disappoint. I promised myself I would not let this recollection turn into a commercial for Roger Beasley or Mazda’s everywhere. I was warned by many blogging friends that I was riding a fine line of becoming promotional and losing some of my more invested readers. That being said, the Mazda6 GT was a real delight and I can honestly say, of the three I drove over the three-week period, this was by far my favorite.
That was a great week to have the 6, too. It was Thanksgiving and we were going to be traveling a relative short distance twice (From Leander, TX to Manor, TX) to visit family. Both times, my wife and I made the decision to take the toll road and informed Billy at RBM that I would be happy to cover the cost. When I mentioned it to him the following week, he simply said, “Don’t worry about it.” I was very impressed with Billy and the whole team at RBM. They took great care of us.
…But more about that later.
The 6 was fun to drive, roomy and had all kinds of fancy additions – from radar cruise control to headlights that turned the direction you were going, illuminating 15% more of the road. There was the touch-screen control panel that would play my Pandora or read my Facebook feed to me (too much information for me, I opted not to turn these features on), and an additional control knob on the console and push-button controls on the steering wheel. It was a bit too much at times. I did however really enjoy the sound system. Not for the audio quality (which was superb), but for the USB direct connect to my iPhone which allowed me to navigate my phone’s audio options (I like to listen to podcasts in the car), right from the car’s control panel. This was very nice.
I looked forward to driving by myself so I could return to my favorite show, Scott Stratten‘s new Unpodcast. I would often ponder what Scott would think of this project with RBM. I have no doubts he would have an opinion. I just hope he doesn’t consider me a sellout by participating and mentioning him here as a way to get his attention. I would never stoop so low…(or would I?)
On December 4th, the three Mazda-teers met at the South dealership to swap cars. This time, I was trading the 6 for the 3. Although the 3 has been receiving rave reviews in the automobile world, after driving the 6 for a week, you can’t help but feel that you’re getting only half-a-car.
Don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy driving it around town. Low to the ground and zippy (although, very little get-up when I needed it). The 3 had the best gas mileage of the group and was the car that reminded me the most of my daily driver. The absolute best part of the Mazda3 (That the 6 had, but I didn’t realize until I swapped) was the keyless entry. It was very cold in Texas at the time and I don’t like to dig for my keys while wearing gloves. Problem solved! As long as the keys were on my person, all I needed to do was press the small button on the door handle and voilà, I was in and thanks to the push button ignition, I was also on my way. The only time this proved problematic was when I returned to my own car two weeks later, only to realized that my keys were still in my pocket and retrieving them from a sitting position was rather difficult.
It was a rather typical week and if I can say anything about the 3, it’s that I didn’t notice anything. You know when you’re watching the Oscar’s and the special effects guy is giving his speech and says something like, “This is a tough category, because for me to be recognized for doing a good job, it usually means you didn’t actually see what I did. The effects were seamless.” That was the Mazda3…so familiar to me already, that I didn’t notice how remarkable it really is…and before I had a chance, we were swapping cars again.
Between talking to Billy, the first week of November, and actually getting into the first Mazda on the week of Thanksgiving, I took a few road trips. I had tried, on a number of occasions, to arrange for Kat, Blythe and I to meet prior to my biggest trip, Big Bend National Park (Nov. 14-17) so I could take the CX5 out and get some spectacular photos with the barren and majestic landscape. Not to mention some serious road-time behind the wheel of a new car designed for both highways and dirt roads.
Unfortunately, this did not happen, but I never shook the feeling that the Mazda CX5 was the one automobile I was most looking forward to drive and I even openly orchestrated it so that it would be the last one of the three for me to test drive. On December 11th I would get my chance. Although, I would have to say the CX5 was my second favorite Mazda from the project (See what Car and Driver had to say about it), I was a little disappointed when I discovered the dash/console controls were quite different and missed many of the features I had been spoiled by in the other two cars (i.e. “The Knob”). It also lacked the keyless entry (Although it did have keyless ignition). It had the same rear camera feature that all three cars possessed and I have to admit, that’s probably the one thing I miss the most. Even more than the blind-spot indicator located on the side mirrors and the heated seats.
For the right person, the CX5 is the perfect car. Here in Texas, anyone who regularly visits the city AND friends or family on a ranch or somewhere in the Hill Country, this is the car for them. Since I live in the suburbs (my whole family is within minutes of my home) and I sometimes have meetings in town, I quickly decided this was not the car for me.
Don’t take that to mean I didn’t enjoy it. It also reminded me of my 4Runner and just like the 3, it was so familiar I didn’t actually get to enjoy just what a nice vehicle it is…at least not until it was returned to the dealer the following week.
The RBM Experience
Overall, I enjoyed the experience and the cars: Driving to visit family for the holidays, shopping, going to dinners, picking the kid up from school…it was life as usual. Only, the typical things I take for granted were somehow made a little better by the comfort and fancy features. I’d be lying if a Mazda passes me on the road and I don’t suddenly see myself driving one in the near future. Now I see them everywhere. And my wife and I have legitimate conversations about which one I would buy, when the time comes to upgrade to a new car.
Mazda owes an extreme debt of gratitude to RBM for making Austin one of the most Mazda friendly cities in North America. With 8% market share, Austin has more Mazda’s on the road, per capita, than any other major American city. The whole team at RBM was friendly, transparent and available throughout the whole experience. I appreciate that they had the confidence in their product to let three complete strangers take on the task of driving them for weeks and trusting us not to smear their good name simply to get more readers/subscribers. It was Billy’s generosity and genuine good nature that makes me want to reciprocate my feelings on this unique project.
On Christmas Eve, we three intrepid bloggers were introduced to Jim Bagan, Roger Beasley’s long- time business partner. He inquired as to how they can improve their connection to the Austin community, specifically those who are active online. He educated us about several of the community programs they are involved in and asked that we continue to provide him and Billy with feedback, going forward, to improve their operations. Looking at each other, I knew what my counterparts are thinking…We have LOTS of ideas.
We were invited to remain a part of the “RBM family” and to call on Billy, or Jim, if we need anything they can help us with. I believed them to be genuine, and sincere, and I look forward to continuing the relationship.
A few details for marketing purposes…
During and after the project, I was interested in some of the finer details regarding the overall outcome. I have a natural marketing mind and I am always fascinated by how these types of “guerrilla marketing” plans work and if they actually do provide a measurable reach and return (Author’s Note: I don’t believe marketing is an investment, it’s an expense. Expecting an immediate return greater than your ‘investment’ is naive at best. This is not an ROI investigation…it’s better). I emailed Billy for some estimated numbers around hard costs on this little venture and what I learned truly surprised me to the point that I felt like sharing…
The hard cost on RBM for one blogger for the entire three week period is around $1500. When you consider that a dealer of this size probably has a marketing budget of $50,000/month (A conservative guess), this doesn’t seem very high. Add three bloggers and the cost goes to $4500 (Still less than 10% of the overall budget). What is in the cost? Simply, time for labor – the auto detailer, Billy’s time – the cost of gas, insurance, toll fees and a few miscellaneous items.
Let’s not forget that RBM had to purchase three brand new cars that could have sold for top dollar prior to our test drives, but the value has gone down on the cars due to the experiment (read: high mileage). But, let’s not be fooled into thinking they won’t make a profit on this little endeavor. First, there’s the cost of the cars, that now falls to the marketing department’s budget (I’m no accountant, but I think that’s a 100% tax deductible). Add the commission to the salesperson who eventually sells the car and it’s pretty feasible that RBM stands to have a margin close to, if not greater than, $1500/car.
That means, RBM has actually found a way to get the word out about their cars/dealership AND possibly make money in the process. That’s kind of brilliant. Now, I don’t know what the actual numbers would be, but you can estimate, with me, that if RBM had three bloggers a month for 12 months, that’s a best-case-scenario of 36 local bloggers writing about you a year. And there’s hundreds of good bloggers in this town. We have whole conferences about it: Here, here and here. If you had only one person per month write something worth reading, that’s better marketing than everyone else who is spending money on PR and Marketing expertise – AND let’s not forget that they are still making (albeit small) a profit on the whole scheme.
I have to hand it to those guys. Not only do they have something that borders on marketing brilliance, they actually had the cojones to pull it off. For their sake, I hope they keep it up.
I only have one more thing to say to my new friends at RBM, don’t you have a Porsche dealership I could test drive some cars for?