In the auto business, there are few challenges tougher than marketing a brand that has few new cars to promote. No matter how good the current product, consumers like to see the latest stuff.
That's the conundrum at Ford Motor Co., which after a solid run of product launches now faces a roughly six-month gap without a significant new rollout.
The last 12 months at the Blue Oval have been a salesman's dream, with introductions of the Taurus full-size sedan, the Transit Connect van, the Fusion and Mercury Milan mid-size sedans, the 2010 Mustang and the redesigned F-150 pickup.
That product barrage helped Ford's sales fare far better than most other automakers in a tough economy; its share of the U.S. market has grown to 14.7% compared with 12.1% a year ago, according to Autodata Corp.
But with the exception of the commercially oriented Super Duty truck coming in March, Ford won't have a new car to crow about until the second quarter of 2010, when the subcompact Fiesta arrives in the U.S., followed by Explorer and Focus launches later in the year.
For now, with such competitors as Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Co. ramping up their advertising efforts in coming months, that means Ford has to get creative when it comes to marketing in this dry season.
"We definitely have some space to fill," said Matt VanDyke, Ford's director of marketing communications.
He's overseeing the automaker's new advertising campaign, which begins Monday. An extension of the current "Drive One" campaign, it will try to attract buyers without the tried-and-true enticement of brand-new vehicles.
Instead, the automaker will focus its campaign on customers, with 15-second spots featuring Ford drivers, as well as make digital forays into Facebook and the like to make the brand seem cool. It will also strive to appeal to what could be the auto industry's most important stakeholder: the federal government.
A key component of the campaign will be a series of ads posted in the Washington, D.C., Metrorail system that highlight Ford's fuel-efficient cars and other green initiatives, VanDyke said.
Running ads in a subway ridden by commuters, many of whom don't own cars, might seem like an odd approach for an automaker. But VanDyke said that "with the spotlight on the industry like never before," such ads are a crucial way to get through to "the influentials in D.C., which are policymakers."
In other words, without new cars to show off, and in an era when fuel economy regulations and low-cost government loans can make or break an automaker, it's crucial to get Capitol Hill on your side.
"It's a tactical messaging that we want to get out," VanDyke said.
Ford won't reveal the cost of the campaign, which will run at least through the first quarter of next year. But a spokesman said the cost would be 10% to 15% greater than its ad spending in the third quarter, and would still include sponsoring for "American Idol," NFL games and other more traditional venues.
As to getting through to the Obama administration, Ford may have an easier road ahead: The president already owns a Ford Escape hybrid.