By Jeff Green

At first brush, it might seem counterintuitive for a car maker to target book readers in a society where it's assumed the most attractive customers don't have time to read.

But the success of a wide-ranging partnership among Ford Motor's Lincoln Mercury division, Barnes & Noble.com and its bricks-and-mortar Barnes & Noble parent is turning that conventional misconception on its head-and proving the enduring value of a clicks-and-mortar relationship in a world struck with dot.com fever.

Starting in fourth quarter 1999 with the launch of the new Sable sedan, Irvine, Calif.-based Mercury featured the Barnes & Noble.com logo and link in all its advertising, print, direct mail and other efforts. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble.com, which provided a link to the auto maker on its Web site, inserted Mercury Sable handraiser forms in more than 500,000 packages shipped from the site.

The partners also created the Mercury Sable Independent Thinkers Series, a collection of books that promote independent thinking, an attribute of Sable buyers, according to Mercury officials. In conjunction with the ongoing series, Barnes & Noble has co-sponsored an Independent Thinkers essay contest, one for children and one for adults. B&N president Tom Tolworthy says the bookseller, which distributed entry forms at its more than 500 retail locations, has received upwards of 20,000 entrants, a total well beyond the 5,000 originally expected. Prizes include a $25,000 scholarship for students, and a similar award for adults.

So far Mercury has gained considerable mileage from the tie-in. During a fourth quarter cross-promotion, the automaker generated 67,000 leads for the redesigned Mercury Sable when the stretch goal for the project was 60,000, said Ed Collins, svp-group manager at Y&R's Mercury brand team in Irvine.

Mercury tracked 29% of its leads from the Barnes & Noble.com site, a greater percentage than that produced by its own Web site. At the end of January, Sable sales were up 28.9% from the year-earlier period, per Ward's Automotive Reports.

When it was determined that potential Sable customers were avid readers, Mercury considered the dot.com route. But according to Collins, a close study of brand attributes between Mercury and B&N suggested that the partnership take advantage not only of Barnes & Noble exclusive relationship with AOL but also the availability of its retail locations.

Deborah Wahl, Lincoln Mercury marketing communications manager, said the program with B&N provided an ideal opportunity for Mercury to utilize Sable's new tag, "Live Life in Your Own Lane." "We wanted to attack the target in a way you wouldn't expect Mercury to talk to them," Wahl said. "There is so much hype about the Internet, but a lot of people are still on the ground at retail."

One such person is Mercury group brand manager Jennifer Moneagle, who tends to be old-fashioned when it comes to buying books. Moneagle says she prefers the look and the feel of retail. But considering her brand's tie-in with Barnes & Noble.com, Moneagle decided to test the Web site. A few days after purchasing some books, Moneagle received an autographed gardening book as a gift. She said she normally would have waited in line to get such a book, but Barnes &Noble.com was able "to suggest it as a gift just from what I bought and looked at online...We were very impressed with their information technology management abilities."

For B&N the relationship offered its retail locations a chance to partner with Mercury dealerships in their communities-say by giving B&N gift certificates to customers who come in for a test drive, Tolworthy said.

"We've had phenomenal responses from our local communities," he said. "In the beginning this was something that was hard to connect the dotsfor on the retail side. We weren't sure what to expect. But it's clear within our communities that the (dealers and retail stores) are drawing energy from each other." The local and national synergies were key, Hess said. "This happened across so many channels: online, offline, direct mail, advertising. It was a good mix and fit," she said.

While the partnership was an experiment for both companies, they are negotiating a longer-term deal, Wahl said. Mercury also has plans to make the relationship an integral part of the fall launch of the 2001 Mountaineer, she said. The customer target for the Mountaineer will be professional women, so the B&N relationship could take another emphasis that would be beneficial to both brands.

Some possible extensions to the program would be actual author chats from the Independent Thinkers series conducted in dealerships and events at B&N stores that are co-sponsored by Mercury. With the success of the essay contest, Wahl said there's plenty of room for expanded opportunities there, too.

Copyright 1998 ASM Communications, Inc. Used With Permission From Brandweek Magazine