Marketing of Self-Driving Cars: New Paradigms


By Dr. Lance B. Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

A popular car commercial opens with a handsome man seated in a shiny new car driving along the open highway. The wind is rushing and he has a big smile as he zips along in his sleek and speedy automobile. His hands are on the steering wheel. He’s in control. Not a care in the world. He’s on the open road and driving to who knows where, but it doesn’t matter where he’s driving to, he’s driving. Music accompanies his ride and a helicopter view pans back to reveal his car taking this tight curve and another. He’s wild. He’s a beast. He’s a manly man. Simply because he’s driving that car.

Well, you’d think somehow a “manly man” would have to do some kind of manual labor like cutting down a tree or lifting tree stumps like a lumberjack. For driving a car, all you need to do is use one foot to press down on a pedal and a light touch on the steering wheel. Not much muscles needed for this. Where is the physical exertion?

Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to take us away from the imagery of the car.  Let’s dive back into the commercial. The car comes up to a mansion. He drives up and there’s a voluptuous stunning gorgeous woman standing there. She’s his. Because of the car. Wow, that’s some car. Any man would be crazy not to buy that car. You get to drive on the open roads, you get to go fast, you get the girl, and you get the mansion. I am rushing to go see my car dealer now.

Let’s consider another car commercial. In this one, there’s a woman driving the car. She is a harried mother and she’s got two kids in the car. Though she’s a harried mother, her makeup is impeccable and she looks like she is ready for a fashion show. She’s pleasantly conversing with her children, giving them tips about life and living. How touching! One of the children is a young boy with a baseball cap and baseball uniform. Must be in Little League or similar. The other child is a girl, wearing a delightful pink dress and ready for, not sure, maybe ballet? The three don’t seem to have a care in the world and all is well.

All of a sudden, a kid on a skateboard is right in front of the car. The mother driving the car is caught by surprise. She starts to apply the brakes and fortunately this particular model of car has special emergency braking that takes over and ensures she does not plow into the kid. The car comes to a halt. She’s OK, the children in the car are OK, and the jerk kid on the skateboard is OK. The mother looks affectionately at the car and approvingly seems to be saying to the car that it’s a life saver. If she could kiss the car, she would. The camera pulls back and we see that now they are heading onward to their destination. Life is good. Once again, I need to rush out to my local dealership and get that car.

That’s certainly what the car makers hope I will do. They market their cars in a manner that is intended to “inform” consumers about how great the cars are. It’s more than just informational, of course. The marketers want to stir us to feel compelled to get the car. They must reach down inside our core and jog a primal instinct. Get the car. Get the car. It’s a mantra conveyed in whatever manner will most cause us consumers to take action. Head down to the dealership, plunk down the cash, and buy that automobile.

How do the marketers and marketing efforts achieve this? It’s not easy. As a consumer, you are bombarded by tons of advertisements and marketing campaigns. Buy this particular brand of toothpaste. Get your hair transplant here. Shop at this retail store. Go out and buy this model new car. These marketing messages come at you from all channels and at all hours. Radio, TV, cable, Internet ads, billboards, newspapers, you name it.

The minds of consumers need to be reached. Car marketing has a long history and has developed many successful aspects for inspiring people to buy cars. For getting males to buy a car, the typical marketing message is aimed at social status. As per the car commercial that I described earlier of the male driving the car, notice that it was all about being a manly man, and gaining social status. I might right now be a man that has no special social status, suppose I don’t have a mansion, I am not able to drive the open roads because I work all week in a dinghy cubicle, and I don’t have a gorgeous woman on my arm. How am I going to get those things? Why, by buying that new car. That’s at least the “hidden” message of the car commercial.

That car commercial even uses a tag line of “be in the discerning few,” which makes us apparently think that we’re the only ones that can get that new car.  By the way, that car is sold to thousands and thousands of people. Not especially a discerning few. Anyway, the marketers know how to push our buttons. They realize that our emotions will get us to buy that car. Our wants and desires are the forces that the marketing imagery needs to deeply tap into.

What about the other commercial, the one with the harried mother. In that case, the marketing is taking a different tack. The mother is saved by the car. It is like the classic story of the prince that saves the princess. For women, the marketers want to tap into the emotions and desires of being rescued, of being safe, of being saved. This car has those emergency brakes and it saved the life of the harried mother. Not just the mother, but it saved her children, and so it taps into the maternal instincts too.

It’s not easy to cram into a 15 or 30 second commercial the kinds of marketing messages that you need to convey to sell a car. You might react to my above description of the two car commercials by becoming alarmed that both commercials are sexist. They rely upon clichés about what men are and what men want, and what women are and what women want.

Don’t complain to me about this sexist viewpoint, it’s what the car makers believe and hope will sell their cars. Indeed, lots of marketing research shows that these kinds of car commercials are actually very effective at doing so. I assure you that the car makers would not spend millions of dollars to produce the commercials, and then many millions more to air the commercials, if they didn’t think they’d sell cars. I am not justifying what they are doing; I am merely explaining it.

Marketers tend to divide the world into two types of personalities, those that are considered hedonic and versus those that are considered utilitarian.

The hedonics are seeking to fulfill promotion goals; they want to feel sophisticated, they want to be at a higher class. They seek fun. They want excitement in their lives. If you want them to buy a car or toothpaste or whatever, your messaging has to fit into that rooted way of living and thinking.

The utilitarians have prevention-oriented goals, they want to reduce the probability of things going badly. They seek safety. They seek security. They want to feel smart and appear like they are a responsible shopper. If you want them to buy a car or toothpaste or whatever, your messaging has to fit into that rooted way of living and thinking.

For men, usually the hedonic approach of selling a car is best. Appeal to their desire for excitement and social class. Show them that the car will get them those things. For women, the utilitarian approach of selling a car is usually best. Aim at the safety aspects, such as avoiding hitting a kid on a skateboard. Demonstrate that the car will keep them and others that are around them safe.

Now, I realize some of you are saying that you are a man but that the utilitarian approach is more fitting, or you are a woman and you think the hedonic is a better fit for you. That’s great. Everyone is different. Marketers though need to think about the numbers, and aim at the largest audience they can. If most men are a certain way X, within the target market, then the marketing needs to aim that way. Likewise, if most women are a certain way Y, within the target market, then the marketing needs to aim that way. Sure, there will be exceptions, but if you only have the budget to make one commercial you need to go for the segment that has the bigger chance of being swayed.

One of the advantages of marketing via the Internet is that a marketer can tailor the marketing message in a very specific way. A television commercial is aimed broadly. An insert of a short video clip on the Internet can be based on whatever is known about the Internet viewer. If you are age 18 and a male, a video that has just the right marketing message can be aimed at you. If you are a 32-year-old female and you are known to be buying diapers, a different video message can be aimed at you.  The medium or channel can allow for offering tailored messaging.

Now that I’ve dragged you through a core class in marketing, you might wonder why I am doing so.

Here at the Cybernetic Self-Driving Car Institute, we are studying and getting ready for the changes in marketing of cars to consumers once the advent of self-driving cars actually hits the roads.

You might be thinking that the selling of cars shouldn’t make a difference as to whether the car is a regular conventional human driven car versus a self-driving car. You’d be wrong.

We’ll start by discussing the true self-driving car, a self-driving car at the Level 5 (see my article about the Richter scale of self-driving cars). A Level 5 self-driving car is one that involves no human intervention. The AI and automation entirely is able to drive the car. You don’t need to touch a steering wheel and nor put a foot onto a pedal. The car drives itself. You tell it where you want to go, and it takes you there. No effort per se on your part. Humans not needed, other than to be an occupant of the car.

Let’s now revisit the two car commercials that I discussed at the start of this piece. The first commercial had a man driving the car, while the second commercial had a woman driving the car. Guess what, there isn’t any human driving a true Level 5 car. If the man is not going to be driving the car, it makes no sense to have a car commercial that tries to convey them as being manly because they are driving the car. They aren’t driving the car anymore. Yikes! Driving the car is nearly what every car commercial today shows.

What will you show if there isn’t a human driving the car? That’s the marketing million-dollar question. You can no longer appeal to that hidden desire of being the manly man, or the caring maternal mother, by showing the man or the woman driving the car. This is tough. The whole concept is that the driver of the car is in control. Not anymore. The AI and automation is essentially in control. The man and the woman are now merely occupants.

Suppose you say that we’ll still put that man into the self-driving car, and they are shown in a commanding way because they order the car to take them to the mansion where the gorgeous woman awaits. I am sure that some marketers will try this, but I doubt it will be very successful. Somehow it does not seem compelling to just be sitting in the self-driving car and barking out orders.

There are some other ways though to approach this.

When true self-driving cars first appear, the marketers can make it seem like any man that has that kind of car is more socially prominent than men that are driving the old-fashioned ways.

Imagine this as the car commercial of the future. A man gets into his self-driving car, and a gorgeous woman is already in there. He and she eye each other coyly. The man turns to the AI at the front of the car and says to take them to the chateau. The two begin to share a bottle of champagne. The door closes and the self-driving car starts to drive off. What’s happening in that self-driving car? I think you know.

Which would you rather be, the man driving a car that is going to meet a gorgeous woman, or the man in a car that has a gorgeous woman and the two of them are maybe already doing some hanky panky.  I am betting the hanky panky version will be more compelling.

The point is that we’ll still be able to use the hedonic approach and the utilitarian approach, but will just need to shift somewhat to accommodate the aspect that the car is a self-driving car. People will still be people. The car is different, but the messaging related to the inner drive of people remains the same.

For the utilitarian messaging, it can shift somewhat to accommodate the self-driving car. Right now, we have messaging about the fuel efficiency of cars, trying to get you to buy a car that is not a gas guzzler. This is a utilitarian aim. By the time that we have many self-driving cars, they probably will be pretty much all electric based cars, and so the fuel efficiency issue will no longer loom particularly.

Performance of cars will still be on the table. A sports car will still be a sports car, and messaging about how fast it goes and that it can zoom from zero to 60 miles per hour is still applicable. What is different though is that the occupants aren’t driving the car. It makes things harder to appeal to the speed of the car when there is not a human driver. Will people be excited to be in a sports car that can go fast, but that it is the AI that is driving the car? We’ll have to see. I remember that at Disneyland they used to have People Movers, which were kind of “cars” that you rode in, and some would go fast and others slow. The ones that went fast, those appealed to certain personalities. Maybe in the real-world it will work the same way.

Currently, in the United States there is about four billion dollars spent on automobile advertising. Some are saying that once we have self-driving cars that the amount of spending on marketing those cars will drop tremendously. Those pundits seem to think that all self-driving cars will be the same and so a consumer will not be prodded toward buying one versus another. I say that’s a crock.

We will continue to have cars that are distinctive of each other, in spite of them being self-driving cars. You can still have an SUV versus a sports car. You can still have a car that has a particular shape and social status to it. We are not going to be riding in one-size-fits-all cars that are self-driving cars. This just doesn’t make much sense. Those living in this kind of utopian dream world are wacky. In the real-world, there will be car makers, car brands, models of cars, and so on.

That being said, there will also be differences in other ways that are specific to being a self-driving car. For example, when self-driving cars start appearing, they will have little of any track records. Therefore, the self-driving car makers will try to showcase that their self-driving car has been better tested than another. We’re the Widget maker of the self-driving car Quickzo, and our Quickzo has been tested on 40 million miles of driving for the last two years. It’s the safest and best tested self-driving car out there.  That’s the early kind of self-driving car commercials we’ll likely see.

In fact, here’s what we’ll see:

  • Comparing self-driving cars to conventional human driven cars (showcasing how much easier, better, etc. the self-driving car is).
  •       Meanwhile conventional human driven cars will market that why give up control when you can still be in control of your own car (and try to keep defections of those eyeing self-driving cars).
  •       Some car makers will try to convince you that you need a second or third car, of which it should be a self-driving car, and yet you can still keep around your old-fashioned conventional car. Be at the front of the pack and have a self-driving car on your driveway.
  •       Makers of human driven cars will be somewhat in a bind if they try to highlight the dangers of self-driving cars, since they too are likely going to be edging into the self-driving car market and don’t want to ruin that future market by poisoning consumers about it.
  •       During early days of having choices among different self-driving cars by differing car makers, it will be a features war of which self-driving car has more AI automation than another.

Those pundits that are trying to predict the marketing future of self-driving cars are often also missing the boat on another important element about marketing. Namely that the consumer marketplace will evolve over time, and that there will be the classic adoption cycle involved.

The classic adoption cycle is that any new innovation tends to be adopted by waves of consumers. The initial and smallest part of the consumer market is the Innovators, usually comprising about 2% of the adopters. Next, the Early Adopters come along, wanting to try what the brave souls of the Innovators have now already been trying out, and this about 14% of the adopters. You then have the Early Majority, which is around 34% of the adopters. Followed by the Late Majority, at about 34% of the market. And ending with the Laggards, at 16% of the market. Those Laggards are the ones least likely to embrace the innovation, if ever.

The marketing messages to each of these segments needs to be aimed at that particular segment. In other words, how you appeal to the Innovators is different than how you appeal to the Late Majority, for example. The Innovators want to get the latest hot new toy. Indeed, one could argue that most of the sales to-date of the Tesla’s have been to the Innovators segment of the market. With the next Tesla 3 coming out, we’ll see if the Tesla brand can appeal to a much wider audience and tap into a larger base of Innovators and/or Early Adopters.

For anyone wanting to be the first at marketing of self-driving cars, be aware that the self-driving cars market will not happen overnight. It will emerge over several years. Self-driving cars will gradually come to the market. It won’t be an overnight sensation like a sudden pet rock that appears and grabs a hold of the market. Furthermore, consumers will not just abandon their conventional cars and instantly switch to self-driving cars. We’ll be seeing the market staggered among the Innovators, Early Adopter, Early Majority, Late Majority, and Laggards, occurring over several years.

It will be an exciting time for car makers as they try to reach both conventional human driver car markets and the self-driving car markets. In the far future, we’ll eventually see less and less of conventional human driven cars, but I assure you it’s a long ways off in the future. The base of some 200 million estimated existing conventional cars is not going to disappear overnight. The dual messaging about being a human driver will remain for a while. Get out your marketing ideas and be ready to help those self-driving car makers figure out how to best move those self-driving cars off the lots. At first, it will be pretty easy and the marketing is going to be easy too. After competition picks up, it will be the usual marketing battle of hand-to-hand combat to sell your self-driving car over someone else’s. I’m looking forward to that day!

This article is original to AI Trends.