Thursday, February 01, 2007

Automakers connect with hip, young buyers in virtual world

Friday, January 26, 2007
Automakers connect with hip, young buyers in virtual world
Eric Morath / The Detroit News

On Motorati Island, you can buy a cherry red Pontiac Solstice for a mere $800, zip around a test track and then watch a drive-in movie with a new sweetheart you met minutes before at a dance club.

Granted, Motorati Island is not real; it's part of a virtual world called Second Life, a three-dimensional online universe where you -- as a virtual character -- can hang out, shop, drive, travel to exotic lands and do just about anything else you do in real life.

The fact that you can buy a virtual car -- or a virtual anything -- on Second Life is attracting the likes of General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and other automakers looking to connect their brands with younger, hipper consumers.

GM created Motorati Island to market its Pontiac brand among Second Life's 2 million virtual inhabitants. Second Life, developed by a California high-tech company in 2003, is seen as the next evolution of MySpace, chat rooms and other interactive Web sites.

"Considering growth factors and the demographics involved, Second Life looked like one of those things we needed to be involved with," said Pontiac spokesman Jim Hopson.

The average age of a Second Life consumer is 32; about 60 percent of its inhabitants are male -- just the demographic Pontiac wants to attract.

"Relationships with brands are similar to relationships with real people," said Andrew Gershoff, a University of Michigan associate marketing professor. "If I'm a person who likes to explore this online world, it makes me feel good if I have interaction with a brand who shares the same beliefs."

Like The Sims and Myst

For those mired in the real world, Second Life is a Web site where players can create a character, an "avatar," and venture through an online existence with everything from beaches and amusement parks to casinos and shopping malls. Nearly everything that exists in reality exists in Second Life, except toilets -- avatars don't use those.

The experience is similar to first-person role-playing on computer games such as The Sims and Myst. Except in the case of Second Life, the people you encounter are virtual versions of real people. The houses and apartments, the clothes and accessories, the cars and pickups, and the entertainment cost money. Real money, converted into Second Life's currency of Lindens at a rate of about 270 Lindens per dollar.

Millions of dollars a month flow through Second Life's economy. Pontiac is spending $12,000 a month to "rent" the space it occupies from the site's creator, San Francisco-based Linden Labs. Pontiac spends less on Second Life than it would to produce a single television spot.

Characters, controlled by users around the world, encounter each other at random and can talk, share information, play games and flirt within the context of a virtual environment.

And automotive companies and others, including Dell, Nike and American Apparel, are rushing to Second Life to make better connections with consumers less likely to see traditional television, radio and print advertisements.

'Really wicked Web site'

On Pontiac's Motorati, which was launched in November, you can buy a virtual Solstice for the equivalent of $3 and watch concerts at the Pontiac Garage -- a replica of the stage from the "Jimmy Kimmel Live" television show. Recently, a Jay-Z avatar performed in Motorati as the rap tycoon played live on Kimmel's Los Angeles-based show.

"We want Motorati to be a place where, if you're a car enthusiast in Second Life people will say you've got to go to Motorati Island," said Tor Myhren, executive creative director at Leo Burnett Detroit, a Troy advertising firm.

Myhren, who helped dream up the concept for Pontiac, said it's too soon to tell whether marketing efforts will translate to sales.

"You'll know a few years down the road when someone's buying a car and they check out Pontiac because their first experience with the brand was on this really wicked Web site," he said.

In Motorati, Pontiac is trying to win the favor of residents by offering them land -- which costs about 9.62 Lindens per square meter -- if they can develop cool car-related concepts to populate the island. Already a monster truck course, a radio controlled car race track and a nightclub have been built.

The campaign is part of Pontiac's larger brand strategy of nontraditional marketing.

GM has peddled Pontiac products on "Oprah" and "The Apprentice," and commissioned DC Comics to create "Rush City," complete with a hero who drives a Solstice. GM spokesman Jim Hopson said a campaign with MySpace is also in the works.

"We're looking for an opportunity to speak to people in unusual ways," he said. "So far we've had a great deal of success."

Toyota, Nissan join as well

Toyota and Nissan are among the other automakers with a presence in Second Life. Warren-based Campbell-Ewald said the site is on the radar for its top client, GM's Chevrolet.

Toyota's creation, Scion City, touts its more youth-oriented brand. The cyber-town draws attention from avatars for its gallery of sensational customizations to its Scion xA, xB and tC. For instance, some have turned the boxy xB into a rolling toaster.

"These are buyers we want. Progressive consumers who are always online," said Toyota spokeswoman Ming-Jou Chen.

The nature of Second Life, which encourages participants to create the world and persona of their dreams, mixes well with the customizable image Scion seeks to portray, she said.

The marketing results in Second Life, however, remain unclear.

The demographics skew toward men and techies, and its users are spread worldwide. An accurate count of the number of consumers on the site is difficult because users can create more than one avatar; and fewer than half of all residents have logged on in the past 60 days.

Marketers also have to be careful not to upset the culture of Second Life, or any social space, or face backlash.

Some in Second Life were upset that some automakers initially chose to give away cars. That made it difficult for mom-and-pop companies operating only in Second Life to compete.

Pontiac chose to donate proceeds from its virtual car sales to the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which works to protect free speech and privacy as they relate to technology.

Among the consumers marketers are trying to reach on Second Life is Liesbeth Verhaard, a 36-year-old from Made, Netherlands.

Playing as her avatar, Lizbeth Ladybird, Verhaard said, via e-mail, that she spends about 60 hours a week in Second Life, multitasking with her Web design work.

She owns a virtual Solstice and has applied to build a dance club, Underwater Love, in Motorati. Other than Pontiac, Verhaard said she rarely visits commercial locations in Second Life and has not bought real life accessories she has found there.

"I think General Motors made a smart move to introduce the possibility of applying for land. It draws the attention of people," she said.

"Second Life in itself is a brilliant and trendy way of communicating."

You can reach Eric Morath at (313) 222-2504 or

© Copyright 2007 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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