U.S. Car Makers Struggle to Convince a Nation of Social Skeptics

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NEW YORK--Feb. 18, 2014: Car buyers in the U.S. are more likely to be persuaded by traditional marketing, rather than blogs, forums and social media, which are often seen as less reliable and ‘infiltrated’ by brands.

“Digital-savvy car buyers in the US are increasingly suspicious of brand involvement when it comes to supposedly ‘independent’ sources like blogs and forums. In China, where the car market is comparatively young and people are keen to explore new digital channels, it’s a different story.”

This is in stark contrast to China, the world’s largest auto market, where almost one third (31 per cent) of buyers see consumer-driven content – such as automotive blogs or reviews on social media - as their most trusted source of information, compared to just seven per cent (7%) in the U.S.

The Automotive Path to Purchase Study (TAPPS) by global research consultancy TNS, shows that brand-controlled sources, particularly TV and press ads, are most influential in the U.S. buying process. Almost six in ten (59 per cent) of U.S. car buyers cite these as their most trusted source, compared to 43 per cent in China.

Although social media still has a role to play in narrowing down choices, car manufacturers looking to build their name in the U.S. should focus their efforts first and foremost on traditional media. The study also shows TV advertising has the biggest effect in persuading buyers to consult other sources of information, whether that is a brand’s website, a car dealership or friends and family.

Andy Turton, Global Development Director at TNS, said: “Digital-savvy car buyers in the US are increasingly suspicious of brand involvement when it comes to supposedly ‘independent’ sources like blogs and forums. In China, where the car market is comparatively young and people are keen to explore new digital channels, it’s a different story.”

“That’s not to say that social and digital channels should be neglected entirely in the US. In fact the biggest success stories are where auto brands successfully integrate digital engagement with more of the old-style ‘Mad Men’ advertising strategies.”

The latest Super Bowl TV advertisement from Volkswagen has been praised for successfully translating to social media. The ad, which shows German engineers suddenly sprouting wings as cars they designed pass the 100,000-mile mark, was accompanied by a staggered social media campaign across Facebook and Twitter.

While most U.S. buyers show an affinity to American brands – including Chevrolet and Ford – the study shows it is actually foreign brands that are most effective in linking up all their different channels to convert interest to purchase. Honda is most effective at pulling buyers through from initial consideration to final purchase, with Toyota following close behind.

In both the Chinese and U.S. markets the role of the dealer is also critical in persuading buyers to part with their cash. Almost four in ten (38 per cent) of U.S. buyers and one quarter (26 per cent) of Chinese buyers cite dealers as their most reliable information source.

Turton concluded: “The idea of the dealer being the car buyer’s ‘best friend’ is abundantly clear in both markets. As the US auto market shows continued signs of recovery – with over 15.6 million vehicles sold last year– it is only brands that can keep customers engaged throughout the whole buying process that will see these rewards.”


TAPPS is the first interactive, online study to measure the new car-buying process in real-time, offering a more fine-grained picture than traditional “look back” studies, in which consumers may overlook details of past behaviour. It is based on interactive and continuous conversations with over 1000 consumers who intend to purchase a new vehicle within the next 4 to 6 months, tracking their activity throughout their pre-purchase period. The research was conducted in the US from July to October 2013. In addition to the US this study has also been conducted in China.

About TNS

TNS advises clients on specific growth strategies around new market entry, innovation, brand switching and stakeholder management, based on long-established expertise and market-leading solutions. With a presence in over 80 countries, TNS has more conversations with the world’s consumers than anyone else and understands individual human behaviours and attitudes across every cultural, economic and political region of the world.

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