Trying to Disrupt the Auto Industry With The Onion’s Help. The New York Times.

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-9-11-36-amPAUL By Zack Schonbrun at The New York Times:

ELIO, the innovative engineer behind the commercial three-wheel car, had only a vague sense of what he wanted from his namesake company’s latest major advertising campaign.

He did know, he said, that he wanted it to be laugh-out-loud funny. His model: the popular Kmart ad from 2013 portraying customers gleefully boasting, “I shipped my pants.”

“I watched that thing 10 times and laughed every time,” Mr. Elio said. “That was genius.”

With that in mind, Elio Motors’ chief marketing officer, Tim Andrews, initiated one of the more unorthodox advertising partnerships in recent memory. Eschewing more traditional media outlets, Mr. Andrews reached out to The Onion, the satirical news organization known for outlandish social commentaries, comedic horoscopes and political spoofs, which since 2012 has had an internal ad agency.

It seemed like an odd marriage for a burgeoning Louisiana-based vehicle manufacturer that is trying to persuade potential buyers of its very serious effort to disrupt the auto industry.

Mr. Elio, though, said that was pretty much the point.

“It’s who we are,” he said. “We’re very transparent. We’re a little lighthearted. We’re not stodgy old Detroit. Not that there’s something wrong with that, it’s just not who we are.”

Mr. Andrews said the goal was to raise public awareness about the company in the hopes of securing more reservations for its gas-powered, two-person, three-wheeled vehicle, which will not begin production until 2017. As of July, about 55,000 reservations had been obtained, although Mr. Elio said that only about 6 percent of Americans had heard of the company. That needed to change.

To do so, Mr. Andrews thought about tapping into the political environment that had become so feverish in the buildup to the coming presidential election. Instead of falling on one side of the spectrum, however, The Onion wanted to help viewers laugh at both.

Its first 45-second commercial, which was unveiled via The Onion’s website last month, and was shared on social media over the summer, features two men — one dressed in red, the other in blue — arguing over who should take the keys to the Elio. Their argument is spiced with political jabs at both parties. (“You guys have already driven the country into the ground for the past eight years,” the man in red says at the beginning. “Give me the keys.” Later, the man in blue says, “This thing doesn’t come with a gun rack so you may not like it.”) The message: No matter what their political leanings, drivers want to get behind the wheel of an Elio.

“I don’t think there’s anyone doing anything like they’re doing right now,” said Dean Crutchfield, a brand consultant based in New York who advises young companies on marketing strategies.

Most brands, he said, are leery of doing anything political during an election cycle because they fear alienating any customers. Even an attempt at a playful ad is too risky for many companies.

“It’s so intense right now, and uptight and aggressive,” Mr. Crutchfield said of the political climate, “to position a brand flat in the middle of that fight that makes it friendly and tongue-and-cheek, I think it does stand out.”

Mr. Andrews said deciding if the company was comfortable was not easy. One complicating factor is that The Onion tries to be provocative in its advertising.

“We always push a little further than probably most brands are comfortable with, just to see how far we can go,” said Julie Scott, the general manager of Onion Labs, The Onion’s internal agency, which has worked with companies and products like Ford, Bud Light andOverstock.com.

She added: “We are always trying to maintain the same level of satire and comedy that we would write for ourselves. We’re always thinking about what our audience expects from The Onion. And we ask brands to work with us at that same level.”

The back and forth between Ms. Scott’s team and the Elio marketing department as they hashed out a campaign created some sleepless nights for Mr. Andrews. Car ads, in general, tend to adopt a more solemn, serious tone (think Matthew McConaughey and those saturnine Lincoln commercials). The focus is on the vehicle and things like its attributes, performance and safety record. Elio’s Onion ad makes only a glancing mention of its claims of getting 84 miles a gallon and its base price of $7,300.

Moreover, Mr. Andrews did not want the pursuit of a new audience to come at the expense of the existing reservation holders, a majority of whom, Mr. Andrews said, are older men who tend to be conservative.

An early idea involved a donkey and an elephant trying to squeeze into an Elio car, with the elephant ultimately crushing the vehicle and ruining the day. Mr. Andrews balked.

“A little too much inciting our audience in a negative way,” Mr. Andrews said, calling it too “Onion-esque.”

Ultimately, though, the creative process took just six weeks until the first digital ads were rolled out in June.

In September, the commercial appeared on one of The Onion’s politically themed pages, and Mr. Andrews said there were continuing discussions about another topical video production ahead of the November election.

Ms. Scott said that the most successful campaigns were generally the ones that were more willing to allow The Onion to do what it does best.

“We know our audience,” Ms. Scott said. “We know the type of content they expect from us. When the content feels native to the voice and comedy of The Onion, those brands outperform other brands who don’t give us that chance to let The Onion be The Onion.”

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Author: Dean Crutchfield

In an award-winning career spanning two decades, Dean Crutchfield has created, built and re-invigorated some of the world's most iconic brands.

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