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Can GM's Pontiac become cyber-groovy?

news analysis The automaker is going full-throttle with branding on Yahoo, MySpace and Second Life as it tries to capture a younger, hipper market.

Can GM's Pontiac become cyber-groovy? news analysis Pontiac wants to be the car brand of choice for the Web-savvy crowd.

The General Motors division on Wednesday launched a cobranded interactive site with Yahoo and a profile for the G5 sports car on MySpace, and just days ago officially opened an island and dealership in the virtual world Second Life.

The company isn't the first to take its branding to the Web, but its aggressive, three-pronged approach is certainly unusual and there's no guarantee it will work. Skeptics quickly point out that Pontiac is no BMW or Apple, which have long had a following among the online set.

"Clearly there are VW people and BMW people. The number of people who think of themselves as Pontiac people are far fewer," said Barry Parr, an analyst at JupiterReseach. "Pontiac is a brand that's got some problems."

Given GM's declining market share, the company appears to see the Internet as a vehicle for attracting younger drivers and changing the Pontiac brand image, said analysts.

"Clearly, we are looking to sell vehicles and also improve our brand, and do it to certain people we haven't been able to reach in the past," said Mark-Hans Richer, director of marketing at Pontiac.

Pontiac has a recent history of somewhat audacious public relations marketing. In 2004, the company gave away its then-newly launched G6 sports sedan to an entire audience of the The Oprah Winfrey Show, while Winfrey gave hundreds of the cars away to needy drivers. "The Oprah giveaway may have generated a lot of buzz for Pontiac, but it hasn't generated a lot of bucks for Pontiac," marketing expert John Moore wrote on his Brand Autopsy blog.

Then there was the national Pontiac television ad a year ago that urged viewers to "just Google Pontiac"--and showed hands typing "Pontiac" into the search engine of Yahoo's chief rival.

Pontiac approached Yahoo with the idea for a cobranded site, dubbed Pontiac Underground, said Richer. The site aggregates Pontiac-related photos from Flickr, Yahoo's photo-sharing site, film clips from Yahoo Video, links from Yahoo's Delicious bookmark site and questions and answers from Yahoo Answers, all of which feature user-contributed content. People can swap road stories about their classic Firebird, for example, and share buying tips via Yahoo Groups and Pontiac car clubs from around the Web that are listed on the site. Visitors can also find out about offline happenings and list events.

The site hosts the official blog for Pontiac, called "Inside Track," and will give the company a way to directly communicate with its customers. "The idea is to have this be open, unrestricted content about the brand," said Jennifer Dulski, vice president and general manager of Yahoo Autos. "Both the positive and the negative will be available."

"Clearly there are VW people and BMW people. The number of people who think of themselves as Pontiac people are far fewer."
--Barry Parr, JupiterReseach analyst

At the moment, there's no advertising on the site. "We see this more as a community entity, not something that is advertising per se," Richer said. "Maybe down the line, if the community is okay with that, we might explore advertising as a possibility."

"I think it's as much about building or maintaining relationships that can yield advertising dollars across Yahoo" as it is about giving consumers a place to congregate, said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence. "This is an area where Yahoo has been under pressure from the MySpaces of the world and even from Google, which is trying to get into the brand advertising budget. This is an area Yahoo aggressively needs to defend."

Neither Richer nor a Yahoo executive would disclose terms of the arrangement. "There are lots of aspects of value exchange that go on between us and Yahoo," Richer said.

The Pontiac site is run out of Yahoo's advertising division and not its consumer services, or audience, unit, Dulski said. "We're working very closely with General Motors in general to deepen the ad relationship and to leverage Yahoo's array of assets to help them work on making their brand perception even stronger," she said. "Certainly there is a desire for Yahoo to find ways to continue to build deeper relationships with our advertisers and to provide more innovative solutions for them to market to their consumers."

The site's built-in fan base already was active on Wednesday, adding RSS feeds, listing clubs and commenting on the exclusive photos Pontiac posted of its new G8 sedan that launched this week.

Yahoo previously created a site dedicated to Nintendo's popular Wii game console. Yahoo also recently announced plans to create "Brand Universes," sites devoted to entertainment franchises including specific movies, video games like The Sims and television shows such Lost and The Office. The Pontiac site differs from all those efforts in that it was jointly developed with the brand company and integrates links and content from outside Yahoo.

An auto site made sense to Yahoo because research has shown that car buyers consult the Web before making purchases, Dulski said. In a recent Yahoo Autos study conducted by J.D. Power and Associates, 94 percent of respondents who use the Web said they believe consumer-generated content is an important source when making buying decisions.

At MySpace, renowned for its youth culture, brands have been moving in since at least last year, including , American Idol, Cingular, , Burger King and the boxy Honda Element, which has more than 39,000 "friends."

On Wednesday, Pontiac launched its Friends with Benefits MySpace profile, which already has more than 500 friends and is designed for owners of Pontiac's new G5 lower-end sports compact. The car sports an iPod jack, XM radio and OnStar navigation technology. Buyers of G5s who register their purchase on the site will get a debit card with credit on it that increases, up to $1,000, as more people become friends of the site. "It's targeted at the MySpace crowd who are younger and with less income," Richer said.

Meanwhile, in the virtual world, Pontiac has built a virtual dealership in and a music stage where it hosted a concert by rapper Jay-Z. Hundreds of virtual Solstice GXPs have been sold to Second Life inhabitants since the Pontiac property went into development in October. Last weekend, the company launched its Motorati Island, which has race tracks and auto-related retail stores and night clubs created by Second Life users on land donated by Pontiac, according to Richer.

It makes marketing sense for Pontiac to jump onto MySpace and Second Life, according to JupiterResearch's Parr. However, he remained skeptical about Pontiac's co-branded site with Yahoo.

"The challenge here for Yahoo as well as for the marketer is that the site needs a reason to exist; to offer something that people will say is genuinely useful," Parr said. The effectiveness "will vary from brand to brand."