Great marketing - but a lousy sales experience

Mitsubishi is the latest auto company to launch a new model online, the Lancer Evolution VIII sports car.

"As a car is a big purchase consumers want to make a considered buying decision," says [Simon Smith, creative director of interactive agency Weapon 7, whose clients include Honda]. "For the car company, it's all about engagement because cars have a life of their own - a unique personality and lifestyle. The web allows you to build an emotional link with a particular car in a way which other media don't."

... "The aim is to further stoke interest in the Evo. But you can't claim to be a real trendsetter yourself if you go to the marketplace with a mass-market TV advertising campaign," [StrawberryFrog creative partner Scott Goodson] says.

"So we are using the internet both to get car lovers and trendsetters to become ambassadors for the brand, and because driving this car is like driving a video game, which most of the target market for this particular car will do and probably do more than they actually watch TV." (Media Guardian, free reg.)

Volvo recently tried similar tactics for their redesigned S40 sedan.

Car companies, through their online marketing, can cleanly target demographics, identify marketing channels focusing on the interests and obsessions of potential customers, and provide interactive features that emphasize customization and performance.

The end result: very well-qualified customer leads.

But that dedication to a customer experience falls apart once you hit the dealership. Sure, you can have a coffee bar in a Mississippi Hyundai dealership. You can even make Hummer dealers spend up to $750K to design stand-alone dealerships with test tracks.

But a customer will also get upsold on the extended warranty. You'll have to wait in the corner of a showroom as a "manager" reviews your offer. You'll be offered an incentive package, but "only today, and only for what we have on the lot." You'll have to pay $14 a day for a loaner when the recall finally does arrive in your mailbox.

Car dealerships are caught between the manufacturer's desire for a seamless brand experience and the brutal realities of local car sales - where any number of franchises sell the same model with similar incentives.

These dealers have millions invested in their business, and they don't see how a corporate branding program and headquarters-driven building design will help them develop a unique identitiy and dominance in their local market.

CNN's In The Money featured Philip Reed from Edmunds.com on the conflicting styles of auto marketing:

Yes, definitely it has gotten better. And my comparison is that it's almost like a game show, because it kind of depends on which door you choose.

What I'm saying is that if you walk onto the car lot you're going to be greeted by a car salesman who may have been in the business for ten years or so, and there's definitely old school and it will be the same old game.

But if you take the second door and go through the Internet or the fleet department or one of the sources that you named, then yes, absolutely, it's a kinder gentler world out there.

Reed was drawing on the experience of one Edmunds.com reporter who lived the life of a car salesman.

In