The Leaders in Buzz

This is the age of "consumer-generated content." The Internet has granted everyone with a computer, a modem and a thought the ability to publish his or her opinions to the world, and many consumers are looking at the opinions of other consumers as a valuable source of "authentic" information. Now a vehicle awards program, the Consumer Voice Awards by BrandIntel, is designed to tap into that zeitgeist. The awards recognize top vehicles according to consumer discussions and sentiment as expressed online via blogs, discussion forums and other social media outlets. Winners are based on BrandIntel's consumer sentiment index, which takes into account over 200 vehicle attributes such as quality, safety, performance, style and reliability.

This was a year of big changes generating big buzz. Major model redesigns were major contributors to several vehicle award-winners this year, with five out of seven awards going to models with completely revamped interior and exteriors. Nissan and General Motors had two winners each, while vehicles from Dodge, Mitsubishi and Mercury also collected wins.

Consumers' positive response to the newly redesigned Mitsubishi Lancer propelled it to the top of the Compact Car category, largely based on the vehicle's aggressive new styling and high performance. In the minivan segment, the redesigned Dodge Grand Caravan swept the category due in large part to its innovative "Swivel 'n Go" seating system and other new convenience features.

Despite consistent competition from the Toyota RAV4 year-over-year, the Mercury Mariner took honors in the Midsize SUV category. It was lauded by consumers for its interior and exterior styling, as well as for its performance and quality. In a similar vein, the Nissan Titan pushed the Ford F-Series out of the top spot in the Large Pickup Truck category, and the Nissan Rogue, a new contender in the Sport Tourer segment, got the winning nod over the Subaru Forester due largely to its Xtronic CVT transmission.  The two GM winners -- the Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac CTS -- were lauded for their value-for-dollar-spent versus import competitors.

In this case, how the awards were determined might be as interesting as the awards themselves. To choose the winners of the Consumer Voice Awards, BrandIntel captured and analyzed online consumer-created content from January 1, 2007, to December 31, 2007. The analysis focused on the automotive brands that generated the most positive discussion and sentiment in online consumer communities. Using its proprietary technology, BrandIntel tracked tens of millions of raw search hits on the Internet and refined those results through technological filters and human analysis to utilize only the highest quality data for this study -- totaling nearly 450,000 consumer mentions.

"The Internet and word of mouth marketing has radically changed the way in which consumers research automobiles and formulate purchasing decisions," said Alan Dean, VP of research, BrandIntel. "Year-over-year we continue to see how positive online consumer discussion by enthusiasts influences mainstream automotive discussions. For automotive companies, consumer-generated content can have a positive effect on their brand awareness."

In this era it seems it is not nearly as important what you actually accomplish as what people are saying about you. Welcome to buying decisions by consumer buzz -- word-of-mouth on steroids.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.  The buzz on him is, frankly, mixed.