Getting Off Auto Pilot: How Car Ads can Rev Up Brand Building

Today’s vehicles can quickly accelerate from 0 to 60, park themselves and even run on an electric charge. Yet despite all the impressive and innovation features the industry has introduced over the years, most auto advertising is stuck on auto pilot. In the US, over half of auto ads have no long-term impact (1-Star on System1’s Star Rating scale), and in the UK, it’s nearly 1/4, with another 57% driving modest brand-building potential (2-Stars).  

So, how can auto manufacturers rev up profit gain and market share growth?  

At System1, we have access to thousands of auto ads via our Test Your Ad Premium database. So we took a journey into what works and why, and the creative features to steer clear of to help marketers manage the road to successful advertising. See below for a glimpse from our auto industry reports, which you can access for free.

Shifting Gears 

Our analysis found that in the US and UK, the majority of ads are losing 20%+ of audiences to misattribution. Car brands are getting lost in a crowded advertising highway, with consumers unable to recognize which brand an ad is for. Rather than making a name for themselves, and lodging their brand into consumers’ minds so they can be chosen down the road, automakers are simply advertising the category.

In April 2024, Tesla cut its 40-person marketing team, with Elon Musk noting the company’s recent ads were too generic. And while it’s important for advertisers to refrain from pulling campaigns too quickly – the auto industry is a long game after all! – it’s also necessary that audiences can identify the brand and connect with the creative emotionally in order to drive long-term effects.

We’ve identified three key roadblocks to long-term brand building:

  • Caution: A declining market has bought rise to risk-aversion and conservative advertising, inhibiting innovative and distinctive brand comms.
  • Category codes: Car ads are very similar to each other and tend to adhere to cliches, adding to the ‘sea of sameness.’
  • Too feature-led: Technology and product features tend to take the wheel, while emotional storytelling takes a back seat, limiting engagement and attention.

Drivers of Effectiveness

To overcome the above obstacles, we took a look at some of the best ads in the category, as well as those that underperform, in order to arrive at best practices for effectiveness. Here’s a closer look at several of these strategies (access them all by downloading the reports).

  • Steer Towards Cultural References

What better way to grab attention and connect emotionally with audiences than to incorporate timely and nostalgic cultural references into your advertising. One of the most effective examples of this is VW’s classic ad ‘The Force,’ which draws upon the magic behind Star Wars to tell a tale about a boy who believes he has superpowers thanks to his dad’s remote start button.

  • Turn Up the Radio

Melodic music aids memorability and helps create an emotional response in viewers. The specific soundtrack you select for your creative can have a big impact on the type and intensity of that emotion. An uplifting song can be just the right fit for a fast-paced scene whereas a slower, softer or more emotional song might be used to convey drama. This is where pre-testing comes in handy – pair the same creative with different soundtracks and you can see which audiences respond better to. Watch how Citroën C4 leverage music to land a 4.1-Star result.

  • Let Product Take a Back Seat

Product focus and abstraction is a left-brained feature which does a better job at driving short-term results. With most buyers not currently in the market for a new car, brands need their ads to capture the broad-beam attention of the right brain. Characters with agency who are incorporated into rich, engaging narratives will accomplish this.

Just take a look at Toyota’s ad supporting the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games. They focused on paralympic medalist Jessica Long rather than the latest features of their vehicle. It’s a rare 5-Star ad for the auto category that takes viewers on an emotional ride.

Get the Wheels Rolling

Automakers are unlikely to win over new consumers overnight, but with a focus on creative quality marketers can help their organizations establish their brands as the right choice when people are ready to buy. So, what are you waiting for? Download our comprehensive category reports for a closer look at the metrics behind auto ads, who’s speeding ahead on the road to long-term brand building and how you can apply key learnings to do the same.