Trouble Turning the Corner – American automakers use nostagial for marketing campaigns and procuct introductions – Brief Article

Karl Greenberg

Gone are the days when U.S. automakers could make cars first and think about marketing later. A belt-tightening economy, ubiquitous layoffs and production slowdowns have left the Big Three sitting on a glut of excess inventory Meanwhile, faced with challenges from imports in every category–including the once-untouchable trucks and SUVs–marketers are struggling to find ways to reach newer and younger consumers. At the top-management levels, auto execs have responded by eliminating brands, the most notable being General Motors’ venerable Oldsmobile and Chrysler’s Plymouth. Almost everywhere else, marketers are undergoing massive efforts to reinvent existing brands while avoiding redundancy between nameplates.

According to many industry observers, the challenge may amount to redefining the American car. Call it a tactical merging of old and new: With a precedent set by Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, whose wild success stemmed from its ability to recall metal icons of a bygone era, designers at Chrysler, Ford and General Motors are all infusing their vehicles with elements borrowed from the past. While the strategy clearly is an attempt to break from the pack, it also provides marketers with a platform to appeal to consumers’ sense of nostalgia.

“Nostalgia is an area where we can compete with the Japanese and Germans. Except for Volkswagen, most makers of imported vehicles can’t offer that,” said Tim Malefyt, vp and senior planner at GM Cadillac and Pontiac agency D’Arcy Detroit.

Malefyt, a cultural anthropologist, argues that cars that borrow from the past without looking old can give vehicles human personas. The idea of the front of the car, the grill in particular, as the vehicle’s “face” can’t be emphasized enough, he said, as evidenced by a growing movement in advertising to humanize automobiles. “That’s where the whole ‘retro’ movement fits in nicely” Malefyt observed, offering an example of the Dodge Ram, “which has a face that looks familiar since it elaborates on older styles.”

The idea hasn’t been lost on Cadillac. “Our Cadillacs coming out now retain that big, broad Cadillac grill,” Malefyt said. “Cadillac has a lot of nostalgia. It was a point of reference in Americana.”

GM execs are looking to create a reference point for the future, and are pinning some of their hopes on the Evoq. Cadillac’s 1999 concept car is spawning a luxury roadster for 2003. The name conjures up the past, while the vehicle continues the symbolic link of the Cadillac grill. It sports remnants of the fins in the back and the grill, but with a sleek, modern body design.

The Evoq name (as in “evoke”) also provides a metaphor for Cadillac’s overall branding efforts. Last month, Cadillac launched a TV campaign using snapshots from the past to evoke Americana. One spot, which began airing during the Academy Awards, features black-and-white images of Muhammad Ali and John F. Kennedy with clips of old Cadillacs.

“We’re playing with the retro thing, because that’s in a sense where the meaning of American cars lies,” said Malefyt.

The spot morphs into color with images from a modern family wedding, all playing off the song “From this moment on.” As the ad moves to the future, it shows new models including the EXT, a truck version of the Escalade, and the Evok, the Vizon and Imaj concept cars.

Others offered more practical reasons for going back to the drawing board. “We’re all chasing slippery designs to maximize fuel economy,” said Mark Hines, brand manager for GM’s Buick Century and Regal. “Unfortunately it all kind of leads to similar designs … the consumer finds the cars all look the same.”

But that will change, he argued, as Buick unveils its new models. Those designs, like Cadillac’s, will put heavy emphasis on the grill. “In our last product review, [head of GM design] Wayne Cherry said, ‘The front-end and grill is your signature. Don’t mess with it.” In the past, perhaps we haven’t been rigorous enough with that,” Hines said.

He noted that even in the Rendezvous, Buick’s cross-utility vehicle, there is a distinct grill. “When we move forward you will see more of that in a very contemporary fashion. We’ll have cues that tell people from 20 yards–that’s Buick.” He also hinted that Buick’s tri-shield emblem will have a much stronger presence both in the grill design and in Buick’s upcoming ad campaign. “You will see us integrate more contemporary execution of that tri-shield. You’ll see some of the color disappear,” Hines said.

GM’s Bengal concept car offers an additional glimpse at where Buick might take its designs to bring older styles into play. The two-seat coup features the rear porthole windows, the “sweep-sphere” back end that is standard on all Buicks, and full-across lighting. “You’ll see us embrace these design cues and incorporate them throughout the lineup,” Hines said.

The same can be said of other models bowing next year. Ford’s 2002 Thunderbird borrows such styling cues from its ’50s forbearer as port-hole windows, and integrates them with sleek contours consistent with more modern designs. Similarly the Chevy SSR roadster, bowing next year, mixes old and new styling cues including strong fender forms and a prominent Chevy logo on the grill, much like the PT Cruiser and its sibling, the convertible roadster Prowler.

Build It, But Will They Come?

These are not random mix-and-match efforts, but rather automakers’ attempts to find the right combinations of features to achieve optimum style, performance and comfort. The growing array of hybrid vehicles bears that out, particularly two recent entries from GM: Avalanche and Rendezvous.

The 2002 Avalanche exemplifies the automakers’ growing interest in creating new categories and carving out new market territory. Due out later this spring, Avalanche is a cross between an SUV and a pickup, with a folding mid-gate converting it to a traditional pickup. “We are calling it an ultimate utility vehicle’ said Deb Michael, assistant brand manager at Chevy Avalanche. “Since it falls into neither category it deserves its own.”

Following Avalanche’s debut at the Detroit Auto Show in January Chevy introduced opt-ins via print ads and on its Web site. According to Michael, the effort garnered 175,000 hand-raisers, 55% online and the rest from brochures at auto events. The target demo for Avalanche is 30-45, 75% male, with a median income of $80,000. “We are marketing Avalanche to people who are challenge seekers, who push the limits and need their vehicle to do that,” Michael said. “Our styling grabs attention, but it’s the mid-gate that will sell the vehicle.”

Initially dubbed a niche model, GM is banking on Avalanche’s broader appeal. “There’s 30 million people who own both [an SUV and a pickup], and here’s a vehicle that does both,” said Clark Sanford, promotional brand manager for GMC.

Nor is developing niche markets the focus at DaimlerChrysler’s U.S. unit. Marketers there are concentrating on how to build on, rather than emulate, the success of PT Cruiser.

“I don’t need 20 PT Cruisers to do well in this business. What I do need is to define the brand,” said George Murphy the company’s new svp-global brand marketing (see Q&A, page 32). “[For example,] Dodge is Bold and Powerful. So you get into trouble when you’re not bold and powerful in the execution. That doesn’t mean leather-trimmed and beautiful interiors, nor does it mean four-cylinder engines. But you have to be careful that what you say you are, you really are.”

That is especially true of Neon, he said. In the Dodge family Neon is not really known as a mean ride. “What we need with Neon is to put that DNA into the vehicle–bigger wheels, bigger engine–and re-launch it as a Dodge brand,” Murphy said. “We just have to clearly communicate how [Neon] fits into Dodge, leveraging Dodge brands like Viper. We plan a refreshing of Neon in 2003, and this year a harder hitting Dodge campaign will include Neon. It would not be far-fetched to put Neon and Viper in the same print ad, selling the cachet of the brand.”

I Second That Emotion

In tough economic times, it is ironic that part of the auto industry’s problems stems from baby boomers and younger buyers having too much money Wesley Brown, an analyst with the consultancy NexTrend, Thousand Oaks, Calif., explained: “It’s not rational, but the more affluent you are, the more time you can spend worrying about intangibles, softer issues: how does it make me look, how does it make me feel, what do my friends think?”

Brown and others argue that these emotional attributes will be key selling points in an increasingly competitive marketplace. For example, a new ad campaign for Cadillac’s Escalade cross-utility vehicle will target a broader, urban demographic by playing up the experience of driving the car as opposed to highlighting only its technology.

“It’s really about the emotional experience of driving a Cadillac that ‘You can overcome anything,” said Martin McDonald, creative director at D’Arcy “Some of our previous work may have expressed technology This is exciting, visceral. It’s a classic chase sequence.

The spot features a woman in her mid-30s driving through a futuristic city; she has to avoid road cones that become missiles, car-eating robots and other obstacles. In the end, a monster is frightened away by the car’s remote lighting. “We are definitely targeting a new demographic; it’s not the old Caddie;’ said Malefyt.

Cadillac is spending half of its $200 million media budget for 2002 on Escalade, including these and other spots.

Other brands are similarly trying to re-introduce their nameplates to baby boomers. Buick’s upcoming TV campaign focuses on the umbrella brand to promote “premium,” “contemporary” and “family” values, while using more edgy creative to target 40-somethings. “We haven’t done that since we went to the brand management scheme in l996,” said Hines.

The ads will be integrated stylistically with those of other nameplates, such as Century and Regal. Said Hines: “We aren’t going to say this is a car for younger people. We will promote the luxury and affordability and use music, creative and talent that are much more consistent with boomer attitudes and lifestyles.”

Jim Rogers, vp/general marketing manager at Ford Lincoln Mercury, argues that for Lincoln Mercury brands, the “proof is in the pudding.” In the case of the Navigator SUV, he said, the unit responded both with a new vehicle and sharply divergent ads touting it.

“Here’s suddenly a Lincoln that makes the brand relevant to a lot more people,” said Rogers. “It came with a new kind of campaign, more lighthearted and funny. We sold it to the public for the first time in July 1997. It’s been a great success, and 60% of its [buyers] have never owned a Ford. But the most important success is that it changed what Lincoln stood for.”

Lincoln has also repositioned the brand with its two-year-old LS, a performance and luxury sedan. “We’ve brought new people into the franchise and, along with the [LS] ads, changed the image of what Lincoln was about,” Rogers said.

Mercury is breaking a new campaign for its 2002 Mountaineer SUV. Though the name suggests a natural landscape, the creative (via Young and Rubicam, Detroit) depicts the vehicle winding through an urban setting. “We knew we wanted the vehicle to be more urbane and different from the typical SUV,” said Rogers.

Youth Shall Prevail

When it comes to reaching the coveted younger buyers, Ford Focus provides a meaningful case study. Focus is not only currently the top selling car in the world, but it is hugely popular among under-35s, including a strong Gen X and Y contingent. Ford sold over 286,000 of the cars last year, per Ward’s Automotive Report. This year, a significant boost may come from the company’s SVT (special vehicle teams) program for Focus.

SVT has already introduced muscle versions of the F150 truck (SVT Lightning) and the Mustang (SVT Cobra). The Focus line–including ZX3, wagon and 4-door–gained a 7% market share from 1999 to 2000. For the 2002 model year, Ford is looking to build awareness among tuners, who customize vehicles and drive buzz among young car enthusiasts.

“There has been a real trend among after-market tuners, especially younger ones, toward four-cylinder, front-Wheel drive,” said Robert Fesmire, brand manager for Ford Focus and Taurus. “The SVT will provide the factory showcase of what performance can mean for Focus at a very reasonable price point.”

He said that the vehicles provide a gateway into the entire Ford program. According to Fesmire, about 46% of Focus buyers are under 35. In fact, the company is forecasting 60-80% conquest sales (new buyers to the brand). Younger buyers seek performance, and the SVT Focus, he said, delivers that at about $6,000 above the suggested sticker price for the current edition.

The company is also introducing its ZX5 five-door hatchback into domestic markets as well. Which is a smart move, according to Brown. “The hatchback is trendy among young car buyers,” he said. “It was an absolute mistake not to bring it over earlier.”

Bill Johnson, marketing communications director for Focus, said the other aspect is making the car and brand fashionable. The company will continue this year with events such as the recent week-long Focus in Fashion affair in New York. This past February, Johnson said that 1,200 people showed up at Ciprianni, a bar in New York’s Grand Central Station, to see models in clothes by top designers made out of Focus’ parts. “That was hugely successful,” noted Fesmire.

It was another smart move, according to NexTrend’s Brown. Much of what drives the emotions of American car buyers comes from younger consumers and the cultural trends they inspire, he said. “We are no longer in a transportation industry; we are in a fashion industry. And it’s the younger baby boomers, Gen X and Y, who are pushing this,” he said.

Brown predicts that the SVT Focus–like the M version of BMW 3 and 5, the AMG version of Mercedes and the S versions of Audi–will attract buyers who are younger than typical Focus buyers, with one difference: more money. “You get better demographics, and then the buyer talks about the car and becomes a brand advocate in general. So SVT will be tremendous for Ford,” he said.

Tom Scarpello, special vehicle marketing manager at Ford, couldn’t agree more. “For SVT, we are definitely focusing on tuners, kids who started customizing with Japanese imports like Honda and Acura,” he said.” [Non-SVT] Focus guys have been doing a lot of work with the ‘import’ crowd, very much the current version of 1960s muscle car and hot rodder afficionados.”

Like most industries today, the challenge for automakers will be reaching consumers in an overcrowded market.

As Jan Klug, Ford’s vp-global marketing, recently pointed out: “We need to start from where consumers get their information, and where can we be in a relevant way with an important message about our products and brand.”

COPYRIGHT 2001 BPI Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

You May Also Like

Backstreet Boys Take Center Stage In Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts Pop Tour

Backstreet Boys Take Center Stage In Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts Pop Tour – Brief Article Sonia Reyes Kellogg taps into the selling power o…

Travel Tours Gen Y Friendly, Contiki Vows – Contiki US Holdings Inc. to target young adults in new marketing campaign

Travel Tours Gen Y Friendly, Contiki Vows – Contiki US Holdings Inc. to target young adults in new marketing campaign – Brief Article Mike…

Latino Players Star in ‘Familia de Beisbol’

Latino Players Star in ‘Familia de Beisbol’ Theresa Howard Illustrating just what it means to act local per its strategic redirecti…

Biz-2-Biz Q&A – Stock Market Photo Agency President Richard Steedman – Brief Article

Biz-2-Biz Q&A – Stock Market Photo Agency President Richard Steedman – Brief Article – Interview Richard Steedman, President, The Stock M…