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Ford, GM battle perceptions in aggressive ads

The automakers believe they have the goods to beat the imports, but long-held impressions are difficult to change.

June 19, 2007|From the Associated Press

DETROIT — When Ford Motor Co. did research to compare the Fusion mid-size car with its Japanese competitors, it uncovered something scary.

Although many who drove the Fusion and other cars in hood-to-hood tests liked the Fusion's styling, performance and handling better, they still wouldn't buy one because they had had such good experiences with their Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys.

General Motors Corp. found similar results in its research, showing both automakers that they had a long way to go in cracking the Japanese dominance of the all-important mid-size car market.

Both Ford and GM have responded with far more aggressive advertising and marketing campaigns in an almost desperate attempt to pull import buyers back into their showrooms.

"We've really got to fight hard," said Mark LaNeve, GM's vice president of North American sales, service and marketing. "If you see a more aggressive tone, we just want to shake people's consciousness a little bit."

Ford launched television, print and Internet ads comparing the Fusion directly with the Accord and Camry, and GM's Saturn brand started urging people to rethink their values as well as how they view Saturn and American cars.

Saturn recently parked Accords and Camrys at all of its 435 U.S. dealerships for customers to compare with its new Aura mid-size sedan.

All of this is designed to change what U.S.-based automakers say is an incorrect perception that they make cars that are inferior to Hondas and Toyotas.

"We need to earn people's confidence and trust, and we believe we've got the goods to back it up," said Barry Engle, general manager of Ford Division marketing.

Ford and GM have lost a huge portion of their car market share in the last 27 years. In 1980, GM dominated with 46% of the U.S. car market, but that has dwindled to 19.2% so far this year, according to Autodata Inc. Ford went from 17.3% in 1980 to 11.1% this year.

During the same time, Toyota more than tripled its U.S. car market share and Honda's share more than doubled, largely because Camrys and Accords have reputations for reliability and quality.

The results went straight to the bottom line. Toyota and Honda recently have made billions of dollars while GM and Ford struggled with losses, especially in North America.

If new ads are going to help reverse the quarter-century trend, Ford and GM must emphasize data showing they've bridged the quality gap with the Japanese, said David Koehler, a clinical marketing professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"It's a desperate time for Ford and GM," Koehler said. "They're begging the consumer to at least try us and consider us."

Georgia State University marketing professor Ken Bernhardt said Saturn's showroom comparison was smart because potential Saturn buyers would be looking at Hondas and Toyotas anyway.

"Looking at yours and the competition simultaneously can prevent someone from going to one of those other dealerships and getting sold," he said.

Previous traditional Ford and GM ads were too subtle to bring about any changes in consumer behavior, Koehler said.

"They've got to do some drastic measures now," he said.

Ford could tout its recent strong performance in the J.D. Power & Associates initial quality comparisons, Koehler said, and GM was effectively showing its quality by trumpeting its five-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, Bernhardt said.

To go with the car-to-car comparisons, Saturn's "Rethink" television and Internet ads force people to see a different view of status, beauty, power, strength and essentially their value systems, said Jill Lajdziak, Saturn Division general manager.

Viewers then see that Saturn has five new models that aren't just small cars, including hybrid gasoline-electric powered vehicles. At the end, the ad challenges people to "Rethink American."

"In my mind, our campaign goes squarely back to the roots of Saturn," said Lajdziak, whose company was started in 1990 as GM's small-car answer to the Japanese automakers. "You want people to rethink many things in life. We want them to rethink what they think about Saturn."

That's exactly what GM and Ford need to do as they try to regain lost ground, Bernhardt said.

"When there's a perception gap, marketing becomes much more important and has a tougher job," he said.

"You have to do something that grabs the attention of the consumer in a highly cluttered environment where it's difficult to do that."

Ford's "Fusion Challenge" ads have helped propel growth in the car's sales (they're up 15.4% so far this year to 66,260), but they're still dwarfed by the Camry, which is the largest-selling car in the U.S. with 193,900 sold during the first five months of the year.

But Ford executives realize that the gap took decades to create and won't be made up by ads over the short term.

"You cannot change perceptions or behaviors overnight," said George Pipas, Ford's top sales analyst.

"You have to start somewhere in order to crack segments that represent strongholds for other competitors."

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