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Honda finds marketing rhythm

Massive music effort targets hard-to-reach millennial buyers

Massive music effort targets hard-to-reach millennial buyers

Sponsorship of high-profile music festivals such as Austin City Limits is part of a massive marketing effort aimed at millennials.

AUSTIN, Texas -- It's a hot October afternoon at the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival, and revelers have found shade anywhere they can: the few trees dotting the park where the event is held; a camp chair from home with a built-in awning; and the Honda HR-V parked on a small stand next to the festival's artist-signing shack.

Honda, as it turns out, also wants to be cool -- cool enough to make an impression on the hundreds of thousands of millennials who pack the park for two weekends every fall. Hence the HR-V on-site and the massive Honda Stage it faces, where popular acts such as The Weeknd, Alabama Shakes and alt-J perform.

Honda's presence in Austin is part of a massive marketing effort that uses music to attract the fleeting attention of millennial car-buyers. The push, which started in June 2014, includes sponsorship of three high-profile music festivals -- Austin City Limits, Governors Ball in New York and Music Midtown in Atlanta. Honda also partners with Live Nation, Sean Combs' REVOLT TV cable network, iHeartRadio, Vevo and YouTube to aggregate videos of its live shows on the Honda Stage YouTube channel.

Fans visit the Honda-sponsored artist-signing shack at Austin City Limits.

So far, Honda says, it's been a success, generating some 2 billion impressions (marketing speak for the number of times a tweet, video or advertising of any kind has been seen by consumers) since launching.

The effort is aimed at reaching those picky, digitally oriented millennials, especially the ones ages 18 to 25. They're the kind of buyer that every automaker wants to pull in while they're young and then keep as their needs and budgets grow.

And they're harder than ever to reach.

"It wasn't long ago we'd be buying lots of MTV and CW airtime," Tom Peyton, associate vice president of advertising and marketing for American Honda Motor Co., told Automotive News. "Now, the ratings aren't there like they used to be."

Today, automakers must think outside the traditional media box or risk losing out on an audience that's critical to their brands, even if that audience isn't buying vehicles today.

"If you're an automaker who's not doing this, you're definitely behind the curve," said Eric Lyman, vice president of industry insights at "This is where we'll see more automakers move, into this kind of experiential and lifestyle marketing."

Using something as emotional as music -- and experiences that involve music -- was what attracted Honda to this effort.

"You become an integral part of an emotional event," Peyton said. "It's rare that a sponsor can be part of that emotional experience."

The Honda Stage video channel piggybacks on the established success of the Honda Civic Tour, which has been around since 2001 and has featured acts such as One Direction, Maroon 5, blink-182 and The Black Eyed Peas.

Fans of the bands flock to their videos online, and by tapping into their popularity, Honda says it saw video views for Civic Tour content jump tenfold to 18 million in one year, thanks in part to the tour's featured artist, One Direction.

"They're not on your playlist, they're not on my iPod," Nick Lee, national brand manager for Honda, said of the U.K.-based boy band. "But the people whose playlist it is on -- 18- to 25-year-olds, skewed heavily female -- that's a really good audience for us to reach."

This narrow approach also has risks. Since the marketing is specifically targeting members of a single age group, if it doesn't grab their attention, it won't grab anyone's. "It's like a rifle shot versus a shotgun blast," Lyman said.

Even if that rifle shot does land, is it actually selling more cars to younger buyers?

"We believe it does correlate," Lee said. Honda estimates that along with auto shows, when people are likely into the purchase funnel already, events such as the Honda Civic Tour generate some of the highest response rates from consumers.

Honda declined to specify how many sales its music marketing efforts influenced or how much it was spending on them, but the numbers are big enough to justify the "significant" costs, Lee said.

Some of the marketing and launch budget for each featured Honda vehicle is earmarked for the Honda Stage avenues. Honda generally favors pushing its cheaper, youth-oriented models in advertising linked to its music efforts, primarily the Fit, HR-V and Civic.

Despite recent successes, Honda executives know they're now chasing a moving target.

"What worked last year won't necessarily work the same way the next year," Peyton said. "It wasn't like that when media was media."

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