SEMA News—June 2012 

By Chad Simon

Marketing 101: Winning Project-Vehicle Builds

Veteran Project-Vehicle Builders Tell How They Make It Work 

Every year, more than 1,500 vehicles are displayed at the SEMA Show. Many of them are customized in the months leading up to the Show, and each represents a collaboration between manufacturers that provide parts and support and the owner/design team that brings the vehicle to the Show. The question is, what goes into a successful project build, and how is it possible to generate a tangible payoff for each participant?

Matching Product, Producer and Promotion

  ’59 Corvette ZR59.
If a vehicle is going to be displayed in a booth at the SEMA Show, Wilwood wants its parts to be on that vehicle. One example is this ’59 Corvette ZR59. 
According to Randy Fisher, Royal Purple’s director of consumer marketing, the trick is to ensure that it’s the right partnership, that you understand each other’s needs and wants and that the vehicle owner does a good job of building brand awareness for both the vehicle produced and the products being represented.

Royal Purple was involved in several project builds for last year’s SEMA Show, including a ’65 Mustang Fastback called “The Producer,” which was created by Ringbrothers and then displayed in the Royal Purple booth. For that build, Royal Purple donated lubrication products, including motor oil, oil filters and transmission fluid. These performance enhancements were not overtly apparent by looking at the vehicle itself, so special arrangements were made to ensure that the Royal Purple brand became a visible part of the promotion.

“We try to get the best possible deliverables,” Fisher said. “If it’s a vehicle that goes on tour, we provide product guides or brochures to the builders so potential customers are educated about our product and understand the benefits. They can give us good word of mouth to the consumer.”

Fisher also recommended being a little bit picky about who you work with.

“We look for those who have a talent for building vehicles, those who go above and beyond just sticking a decal on a car,” he said. “We want to be involved with partners like Ringbrothers, who build some of the top vehicles in the world and outperform at what they do. We look for the best of the best.”

Other types of parts may be easier to showcase on a project vehicle, but the marketing plan still needs to be extensive and detailed. Exhibiting at the SEMA Show, magazine exposure and social-media presence are the major qualifiers for landing Hellwig’s products on your project vehicle, according to Melanie White, the company’s marketing manager. She said that most builders are good about mentioning all of their partners, and some even cover the whole installation from start to finish via social media and other outlets.

  A.R.E.’s most recent project-vehicle build is its Pro Football Hall of Fame Ford F-150
A.R.E.’s most recent project-vehicle build is its Pro Football Hall of Fame Ford F-150—a joint marketing venture between Ford, A.R.E. and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Hellwig sees its project-vehicle opportunities from two sides, because the company is both a builder and a manufacturer that frequently supplies parts to other projects. In addition to donating parts to at least 20 different projects annually, Hellwig averages one build per year itself.

“When we’re the ones doing a build, I always like to under-promise and over-deliver to our partners in terms of media exposure,” White said.

This year’s project vehicle—a Ford F-250 called the “Big Wig” that Hellwig uses as a camper—includes 16 different partners. Previous builds have included a Chevy Suburban and a lifted Avalanche; a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited LJ, a Grand Cherokee ZJ and a Cherokee XJ; and a Ford F-150.

Ken Hale follows his own process as Wilwood Engineering’s director of sales and marketing. Before he decides to accept a proposal, he verifies that the vehicle has been invited to the SEMA Show. Then he looks at the builder’s track record, the kind of vehicle it has, the type of brake system it wants and whether Wilwood already has any builds using the same brake system.

“As a general rule, if a vehicle is going to be displayed in a booth at the SEMA Show, Wilwood wants to be on that car because of the media attention it will generate,” he said.

Unlike many other parts manufacturers, Wilwood doesn’t necessarily require signage or logos to participate in a build.

“Typically, the wheels are set so that you can clearly see the brakes and calipers,” said Hale. “If they are completely covered, we’re not interested. We really like it when the wheel is taken off the car and the brake is exposed.”

A.R.E., a manufacturer of truck caps, tonneau covers and accessories, evaluates product requests on a case-by-case basis. A.R.E.’s most recent project-vehicle build is its Pro Football Hall of Fame Ford F-150—a joint marketing venture between Ford, A.R.E. and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

  TRG Porsche 911 GT3 project vehicle.
The first thing Bilstein considers is whether a build will be interesting to attendees and attract attention. Pictured here is a TRG Porsche 911 GT3 project vehicle, which Bilstein brought to last year’s SEMA Show.
In the past, A.R.E has been successful with commercial vehicle builds, including a project truck for Tim Samaras of “Storm Chasers” on the Discovery Channel. A.R.E. also built a tornado-chasing truck that was regularly seen on the “Storm Chasers” last year, and the company has built multiple trucks called “Site Commanders” utilizing Ford Super Duty pickups. Those projects spun off into annual truck giveaways by Remodeling and Tools of the Trade magazines.

A.R.E. selects projects that it can provide products for within its budget and that will generate the most publicity for the company. For new proposals, it is important that the vehicle has a home at the SEMA Show inside the Las Vegas Convention Center. If it’s going to be displayed in Ford’s booth, A.R.E. Director of Marketing Bryan Baker approves with no questions asked, but he rarely says yes to a request if the vehicle will be placed outside the Convention Center unless it is accompanied by an outstanding post-SEMA Show marketing plan.

Wilwood’s Hale agrees: “Having brakes on a car in the Ford or GM booth is much more valuable than having it in another (non-OEM) manufacturer’s booth, because it gives your product legitimacy.”

For builders, it’s a good business practice to communicate regularly with parts donors throughout the process.

“During the ‘Storm Chasers’ build, Samaras would update us all daily from the field in regard to his tornado encounters,” said Baker. “But, in general, we do try and keep the donors updated on the publicity generated by a project vehicle build.”

One thing is for sure: When a project vehicle is used properly for marketing, it works.

When Bilstein introduced its new 5160 Series remote-reservoir shocks and displayed them installed on a Jeep Rubicon JK Unlimited, good things happened.

“Not only did it help to drive foot traffic to the booth, but it also significantly increased interest in this new product,” said Chelsea Bell, Bilstein’s marketing specialist, “and we noticed a rapid sales response following the event. We also leveraged actual images and video footage of the vehicle in our booth and used them in our advertising materials, which likely contributed to the product sales.”

Develop a Detailed Plan

  “The Producer”—a ’65 Mustang Fastback.
Royal Purple looks for partners who have a talent for building some of the top vehicles in the world and outperform at what they do, such as this project build with Ringbrothers called “The Producer”—a ’65 Mustang Fastback.
A strong marketing plan that includes media and/or extensive event exposure is a must if manufacturers who donate parts or labor are to benefit from their participation. The amount of exposure needs to be commensurate with the value of the parts or labor.

The plan should include a show schedule that details where the builder will exhibit throughout the year, including the number of people who attend so that parts donors can actually measure their impressions and cost per exposure. For manufacturers who participate in a project-vehicle buildup, getting a return on investment in the form of product exposure is the bottom line when it comes to donating parts.

“We provide product that costs several hundred dollars,” said Royal Purple’s Fisher. “It doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you get hundreds of requests, it adds up. We have to take a look at each one individually and base it on the merits of what they’re proposing and what they can provide to us versus the quantity of product they’re looking for, and we try to do the best we can to maximize the promotion for both of us.”

Hellwig’s White has found that creating a theme around the vehicle as part of the planning phase and taking it to events related to that theme is a successful way to attract reputable manufacturers.

“For our current build, we are attending events geared toward the RV market, including RV rallies and other events that are specific to the niche we built the vehicle for,” she said. “We built the ‘Big Wig’ truck for people who are towing and hauling, so it’s a perfect match for what we’re trying to do with our own product line. But then we have to get that in front of the right crowd, so we’re using the truck and camper to tow our Jeep, and we’ll take it to the Off-Road Expo and some other off-road events, too.”

To a company like Bilstein, a winning proposal should highlight the company’s long-standing history of notable achievements, such as races won. Last year the company featured a few high-profile vehicles, including a Turner Motorsports BMW and a TRG Porsche 911 GT3.

“The first thing we consider is whether the build will be interesting to attendees and attract attention,” said Bell. “Also, will the vehicle feature some of our top products that we want to push this year, and will it be supported by other reputable manufacturers?”

Post-Show Promotion

A solid project build should extend beyond the SEMA Show, because that is when the real promoters pull away from the rest of the pack, according to A.R.E.’s Baker. These days, social media can become a significant way to deliver eyeballs to benefit project-vehicle parts donors. Developing press releases and integrating the build into point-of-purchase displays, literature and websites are all crucial areas to explore. Much of this type of publicity can be measured with a fair amount of accuracy. Baker estimated that the Hall of Fame truck has received more than $185,000 worth of free media exposure.

“I recently ran the numbers on the Pro Football Hall of Fame project vehicle, and so far it has been seen by more than 4 million sets of eyes,” he said. “And this doesn’t even consider how many thousands of people have taken photos of it and posted them on Facebook for their 100-plus friends to see.”

Royal Purple’s Fisher agreed that the useful value of social media and the lasting credibility of third-party recommendations are crucial.

“We can go out there and spend all the marketing dollars we want touting ourselves, but that’s not selling the product,” he said. “It’s someone using the product and then telling their friend about the benefits. When we have a relationship with someone who’s touring their vehicle and they go to 15 shows and have the chance to talk to thousands of people, those are good impression counts, because the cost of what we provide to them isn’t necessarily that high. It’s a good value and return on our investment, since we’re giving them several hundred dollars of product and they’re talking about us all year long.”

Long-term thinking can pay off in a variety of ways—some quite unexpected. At last year’s SEMA Show, Wilwood displayed a ’59 Corvette ZR59 project in its booth. The company also provided brakes for a new Chevrolet Sonic, which GM displayed in its booth. Because of that display, Wilwood is now in negotiations with Chevrolet to provide the brake kit as a dealer-installed upgrade option.

The Bottom Line For a Winning Project

  Ford F-250 “Big Wig”
To reach the right crowd, Hellwig takes its current project—a Ford F-250 “Big Wig” truck—to events specific to the RV market.
If you’re building a vehicle, build a great one and market it effectively in ways that will pay off for your partners.

“Do an exceptional job the first time, and it will increase your odds in regard to future projects,” said Baker. “If you don’t meet your partners’ expectations the first time, you likely won’t get a second chance.”

Six Steps to a Successful Build

• Devise a solid plan that includes a theme, appropriate partners and a market segment target.

• Ensure that you have the time and resources to follow through. All involved will want to know that your timetable and budget plan are sound.

• Create a winning proposal for the OEMs and parts donors that includes previous build experience and a schedule of shows and races where the vehicle will be displayed throughout the year (with projected attendance numbers, vehicle renderings and booth locations).

• Understand your partners’ ideas in terms of specific needs and wants. If a donor’s product is hidden under the vehicle or hood, how do you propose to expose the brand at shows and events?

• Use social media to market your build and work to generate enough public interest and media exposure for everyone involved.

• Stay in touch. Update your partners on the status of the build regularly as the vehicle is being built and throughout the subsequent marketing process.

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