Toyota has become the latest auto-related brand to market within Car Town, the Facebook-based social game from Cie Games that lets players manage a garage full of digital vehicles and earn virtual rewards for performing tasks and completing challenges.
But more than most in-game campaigns, Toyota’s Car Town promotion is tightly integrated to other branding events the company is currently running elsewhere online and offline. Specifically, Car Town players are able to explore a mock-up of the showroom at the Detroit Auto Show where Toyota unveiled some of its new Prius hybrid models earlier this month. And they can cast their vote in the “Prius Is Plural” promotion, a tongue-in-cheek effort to find the proper way to refer to more than one Prius.
The “Prius Is Plural” campaign is primarily taking place on the Prius Facebook page, where users can vote for their favorite formation among choices such as “Priuses”, “Prien”, “Prium” and of course “Prii” (the popular favorite at press time with 40% of the vote, according to a running tally on the page.) But players within the Car Town game can also click on a voting kiosk to cast a ballot for their choice; once that’s done, they can dress their Car Town avatar in a T shirt sporting the plural of their choice.
The plural winning a plurality of votes will be announced by Toyota at the Chicago Auto Show on or around February 20. Those who voted for the winning choice won’t get anything other than bragging rights; the contest is mainly designed to tap into the social spirit and brand love of existing Prius hybrid fans, says Dionne Colvin, national marketing manager for media, Toyota Division.
The voting contest fits Toyota’s Detroit announcement of a range of new models within the nameplate, Colvin says, including the Prius v hatchback wagon, the Prius c urban model, and a plug-in electric model slated for 2012.
“[‘Prius Is Plural’] takes off on something that research told us users were already joking about—what is the proper way to talk about more than one Prius?,” Colvin says. “But it stresses that now there is almost a Prius for every need.”
Within Car Town, players can use some of the credits they earn (or buy) to purchase and drive a new Prius. But the integration into the game doesn’t stop at simply offering Prius as a vehicle choice, as Toyota did in 2009 when integrating the hybrid into popular console game “The Sims 3”. Players who use their Prius to compete in races inside Car Town or to earn reward points by completing tasks such as delivering pizzas will find that their virtual rides are just as economical to run as the real thing: They will spend 50% less on fuel than players driving other car brands.
The Toyota Prius Car Town campaign also created some buzz before its January 10 launch with the sudden appearance of an unexplained tree within the game interface. Once the promotion began, that was revealed to be a “money tree” that grew with each player’s in-game purchase of Prius vehicles. (Car Town players can own more than one.) When a player bought enough Priuses/ Prii, the tree began sprouting gold coins that could be harvested and used for other rewards.
In this case, Colvin says, the appearance of the mysterious tree focused players’ attention very effectively even before the campaign was announced.
Overall, she says, Toyota valued the ability to reach a highly interested audience of 7.2 million active Car Town users with a promotion that offered incentives for engaging with the brand while publicizing its benefits in a very organic way.
“We wanted to see if we could get some momentum going around discussions about the new Prius family and especially to reach out to enthusiasts, people who are interested in the technological innovations behind this iconic hybrid,” Colvin says. “Car Town was an opportunity for us to reach an audience inclined to be car-crazy. And then there’s the whole social aspect of the game that we thought could help with encouraging discussion.”
Car Town encourages players to invite their Facebook friends to join and compete in time trials or to ride as passengers on “road trips”. Most actions and achievements by players can be posted to their Facebook wall and shared with their friends.
Toyota Prius is the second auto-related brand to roll out a rewards campaign within Car Town in recent months. Last December State Farm Insurance unveiled a Car Town promotion offering reward points for players who complete specific challenges involving safe driving, multiple car ownership and neighborliness—all attributes the brand regularly stresses in its offline advertising.
The growth of social gaming was one of the notable trends in online marketing last year. A new study from eMarketer concludes that 53 million U.S. Web users, or 24% of the online audience, played at least one social game a month in 2010. And the marketing research firm expects that number to grow to 61.9 million players this year (27% of U.S. Web users) and 68.7 million (29%) in 2012.
FarmVille is reportedly the most popular of the social games available on Facebook. The farming game, a product of maker Zynga, is said to have 62 million active users and last year spread to Apple’s iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices as well as to Microsoft’s MSN Games Web site.