For PeopleFirst.com, an online originator and services of auto and motorcycle loans, 2000 was truly a building year. Launched in September 1997, PeopleFirst.com has slowly and steadily grown to be one of the leading providers of hassle-free, low-rate vehicle loans online. Lacking the name recognition of eLoan.com or giggo.com, both of which spent significantly more on advertising in 2000, PeopleFirst.com turned to Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide/Los Angeles to implement a comprehensive branding campaign supported by aggressive media relations, integrated marketing, promotions and events. Through various public relations tactics, we were able to successfully achieve our core branding and visibility objectives and solidify PeopleFirst.com as a significant player in its industry.
At a time when the biggest stories in the news were about the failures of business to consumer dot-coms, Ogilvy PR strategically positioned PeopleFirst.com as an online company with a sound, targeted business plan.
The PeopleFirst.com name proved to be an additional challenge because the name alone does not indicate what the service does. Ogilvy PR was able to effectively position PeopleFirst.com as a company that puts its customers before the deal by emphasizing the hundreds of real customer testimonials that appear on the web site and using past customers as third-party endorsers for key interviews (New York Times, Business Week)
The goals of the 2000 public relations campaign were to increase PeopleFirst.com’s brand awareness and to increase the number of applications to the site. In order to achieve these goals, the objectives were:
- Educate media and consumers about obtaining auto loans online and generate overall awareness of the category
- Promote the need for an easier, more convenient and cost-efficient way to apply for a car or motorcycle loan
- Introduce PeopleFirst.com to key automotive, finance and technology media and analysts
- Position PeopleFirst.com as the easy, hassle-free alternative to a notoriously frustrating and intimidating process of obtaining an auto loan
- Drive site traffic from key high-end markets nationwide
Market research findings for the industry show that there is a large, growing market for online auto financing, especially as the use of the Internet for purchasing vehicles has steadily increased over the last few years. The online auto sales market reached $2.1 billion in 1999 in the U.S. and is expected to grow to 27.3 billion in 2004. While only five percent of online users have researched or applied for an auto loan online, 57 percent (30.8 million people) plan to research or apply for their next auto loan over the Web.
Ogilvy PR became experts on online auto financing by tracking online news, overall market trends and market research. By tapping the resources of Ogilvy PR’s internal online monitoring department, the team was able to monitor chat rooms to determine consumer attitudes towards obtaining loans online. To gain a thorough understanding of consumer attitudes and perception about online financing, we conducted an omnibus survey, finding even more information about the market’s end-user. Additionally, Ogilvy PR prepared a competitive analysis on online auto loan companies to ascertain where PeopleFirst.com stood in the landscape.
With limited advertising support, the public relations campaign developed by Ogilvy PR sought to:
- Target key markets nationwide where car sales are high and most of the population is “wired”
- Differentiate between applying for a vehicle loan online as opposed to the traditional means of applying through a bank, credit union or car dealership
- Implement a series of creative, fun promotions and events to make PeopleFirst.com stand out from other online loan companies
- Leverage PeopleFirst.com’s partnerships and affiliations with top industry players such as AutoByTel, Edmunds, CarsDirect.com, LendingTree and American Express.
Ogilvy PR implemented a comprehensive media strategy that included media relations, promotions and special events. An ongoing news bureau operation was implemented to keep PeopleFirst.com top of mind with key reporters who cover online banking and financing and automotive technology. By leveraging PeopleFirst.com’s relationships with established brands such as AutoByTel, CarsDirect.com, and Lending Tree in our press releases and pitches, we were able to draw attention to PeopleFirst.com and its products and services. Some key elements of our ongoing campaign include:
Ogilvy PR developed a comprehensive press kit including the general lead release, company fact sheet, company backgrounder and executive management bios. To further demonstrate PeopleFirst.com’s capabilities and strengthen its image to the press and analysts, the press kits included a sample Blank Check and list of color logos from some of PeopleFirst.com’s premier partners. The press kits were mailed to automotive, finance, business and technology writers in the top 50 DMAs.
To help educate key media about online auto financing and elevate the profile of PeopleFirst.com executives, Ogilvy PR booked media tours in New York and Detroit including appointments with a variety of automotive, finance, technology and lifestyle publications and analysts. In New York, PeopleFirst.com CEO and co-founder Gary Miller met with Dow Jones, Reuter’s, Forrester Research, Forbes, Automotive News, Family Circle, and PC Week, among others. In Detroit, PeopleFirst.com President Brian Reed met with Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and AutoWeek.
PEOPLEFIRST.COM MERGES WITH GIGGO.COM
When PeopleFirst.com acquired its nearest competitor, giggo.com, the company looked to Ogilvy PR to help publicize the announcement of the acquisition and fend off negative coverage of potential layoffs and shutdown of giggo.com’s Fort Worth, Texas-based operations. Ogilvy PR developed a Q&A document for all senior management and conducted media training to ensure that all spokespeople were well-versed in the messaging. The news release and media relations efforts focused on the blending of two complementary companies to better serve PeopleFirst.com’s customers and potential customers. Through aggressive outreach to key media, Ogilvy PR secured an exclusive with Dow Jones the day before the announcement and day-of-announcement interviews for PeopleFirst.com’s Gary Miller and giggo.com’s Brian Reed with Reuter’s, C/Net, Automotive News, and Bloomberg, among others.
HASSLE-FREE MONDAYS, COMPLIMENTS OF PEOPLEFIRST.COM
To help position PeopleFirst.com’s service as truly hassle-free and convenient, Ogilvy PR devised a series of events called Hassle Free Mondays. Based on extensive market research, Ogilvy PR selected San Diego, Houston and Austin, Texas to implement the first events because each city ranks high as a “wired” city and also for high car sales. In each market, a PeopleFirst.com branded van would travel around the city and deliver goods and services to unsuspecting residents in an effort to make their Mondays hassle-free. The PeopleFirst.com “Pit Crew” gave out free gas, complimentary coffee and free lunches to more than 2,000 consumers in each market. The crew also gave out premium items (stress balls, commuter mugs and car-shaped air fresheners) with the PeopleFirst.com URL to help increase brand awareness and drive traffic to the web site.
EVALUATION/MEASUREMENT OF SUCCESS
Awareness of PeopleFirst.com has grown both with consumers and media over the past year. Firmly established as a leader in the online finance category, media are now requesting input from PeopleFirst.com for their stories (the New York Times and a producer from 20/20 recently interviewed Gary Miller for a story on discrimination practices at dealerships). Key media placements over the past year have included: CNNfn, CBS MarketWatch, New York Times, New York Post, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, Bloomberg, Reuter’s, Dow Jones, C/Net, Business Week Online,Automotive News, Dallas Morning News, San Jose Mercury News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Bank Rate Monitor, and Arizona Republic, among others.
The successful PR campaign initiated by Ogilvy PR on behalf of PeopleFirst.com also helped contribute to increased site traffic and funded loans. For 1999, PeopleFirst.com recorded 71,000 applications and $183.3 million in funded loans. For 2000, the company received more than 400,000 applications and is now on target to fund more than $1 billion in loans, a 500 percent increase. Additionally, Ogilvy PR achieved individual success for each of the programs implemented. In each of the markets for the Hassle Free Monday events, applications at least doubled for the week following the events. The New York media tour resulted in a feature placement in Automotive News, which in turn led to prominent placement in a New York Times story.