Caterpillar’s newest machine is a runt in the earthmoving giant’s litter of hulking tractors and bulldozers, a two-wheeler that will seldom hit the street, let alone turn dirt.
But marketing experts said the Peoria-based company’s one-of-a-kind motorcycle, born in April 2005 on the Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper” Series, is already digging up exposure that’s harder to come by in a world filled with commercial-skipping technology like TiVo.
“Anymore, companies have to do something unique so their name stands out. Consumers are just bombarded daily with advertising and other cutesy things, so they start to tune it out,” said Tim Longfellow, who heads Illinois State University’s marketing department.
Facing stiffer competition for sales and an explosion of media choices, more and more companies are trying new gimmicks to augment advertising, trade shows and other traditional promotions that just aren’t enough anymore, marketing experts say.
Many are latching onto the popularity of reality TV, where their name and products become the focus of the show.
On “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” sponsor Sears showcases its tools, appliances and housewares for an hour every week in the name of entertainment.
“It offers legitimacy … What viewers see on TV, they realize they can experience, too. It’s real, not an orchestrated ad,” said Lee Antonio, spokeswoman for the Hoffman Estates-based retailer.
Network officials said companies are lined up for spots on shows such as “The Apprentice,” where contestants tackle real-life corporate projects to court favor with billionaire Donald Trump.
Pontiac was flooded with more than 1,000 orders in less than an hour after an “Apprentice” episode where contestants created a promotional brochure for the new Solstice, a roadster that doesn’t debut until fall, said Jim Dowd, spokesman.
“As consumers become more sophisticated, we are continually looking for unique ways to connect with them,” said John Costello, vice president of merchandising and marketing of Home Depot, which turned one of its stores into the “Apprentice” set this season.
No one involved would say how much companies pay for such product placements, but the costs have already sparked lawsuits. Mark Burnett Productions, which produces “The Apprentice” with Trump, claimed earlier this year that Madison Road Entertainment was charging advertisers up to 250 percent more than it paid Burnett to get brands on the show. Madison Road responded that Burnett tried to squeeze it out to keep a larger share of the profits.
Caterpillar and about a dozen other companies have turned to cable TV and the popularity of Orange County Choppers, a small, family-owned New York shop that has built a following with its reality-based show that blends cycle building and banter.
The shop fields 10 to 15 calls a day from companies bidding for a custom-built cycle and that hour of television exposure, said Michael Burkhouse, a sales manager of the company.
He said the company-themed choppers, which run approximately $125,000 if built off-air but far more for the television models, are typically showcased later at trade shows and promotional events.
Caterpillar plans to truck its trademark-yellow bike, with a raised exhaust like a tractor’s smokestack, to dealer showrooms around the country. It hopes the novelty attracts cycle enthusiasts and introduces them to the company, particularly small business owners who aren’t buying from Caterpillar yet, said Tim Elder, company spokesman.
“We want to show them a side of Cat they probably haven’t seen, a fun side,” Elder said.
Marketing experts say fun is at the center of the new wave of promotions, which some say traces back approximately 70 years to Oscar Mayer’s “Weinermobile.”
Hundreds of companies have turned to sports broadcasts, putting their names and corporate logos on golf tournaments, college bowl games, even half-time shows.
“Things like custom-made motorcycles, NASCAR and golf tournaments can create an excitement. It’s tangible and appeals to something people think is cool and interesting,” said Christina Silvio Haggerty, marketing manager of the 40,000-member American Marketing Association.
But she warned that gimmicks can only turn heads, not maintain sales.
“Overall, at the end of the day, if your product doesn’t deliver on your promise to the customer, those fun little promotions aren’t going to mean anything,” she said.
Outside-the-box promotions like Caterpillar’s motorcycle can help companies connect with customers who have become “anesthetized” by waves of traditional advertising, but they tend to have short shelf lives, said Brian Wansink, a University of Illinois marketing and business administration professor.
“It’s a really great thing to do in the short run,” Wansink said. “Obviously, if they’re still trying to use the same thing 20 years form now, it’s going to be getting a little old.”
Coming up with new ways to connect has become more of a challenge since TiVo was introduced about four years ago, said Mark Gibson, assistant vice president of advertising at State Farm Insurance Co.
Along with an LPGA event and college basketball tournaments, Bloomington-based State Farm sponsors in-game features on sports telecasts, including an imbedded safety tip during NASCAR races and lineup previews during college basketball and NFL games.
“Those are things people can’t fast-forward through,” Gibson said. “We still believe traditional advertising has a strong place in what we do. The cumulative effect of everything, that’s what we’re shooting for.”