In 1897, the Studebakers began to experiment with automobiles. By 1902, the company was building electric cars and, two years later, gasoline-powered automobiles. A leader in styling and engineering, Studebaker was also ahead of its time in its recognition of the importance of advertising. It was one of the first corporations to make a commitment to spending money on advertising and research in order to inspire consumer confidence and attract new customers.
Emphasizing family ties
Studebaker's ads always began with a declaration of an ideal, typically one that focused on the importance of family ties, quality of workmanship or economy of operation. One of the most famous campaigns was the long-lived "father and son" series, which featured fathers and sons who worked in Studebaker plants and emphasized a common family interest in the building of cars. During World War I, the ads depicted a father working in the factory to turn out war goods needed by his son fighting overseas.
In the early history of the company, Studebaker advertising was created in-house. After significant corporate reorganization in 1935, Studebaker no longer maintained an in-house advertising department. Burke Dowling Adams, South Bend, was the marketer's early agency of record.
Studebaker switched agencies in the mid-1930s to Roche, Williams & Cunnyngham (later Roche, Williams & Cleary). It also hired specialized agencies to handle projects and promotions. In 1955, when Studebaker hired Benton & Bowles, it increased its ad budget by 30% to $8 million (unprecedented for Studebaker), which was spent on a multimedia ad campaign.
In an effort to serve the post-World War II market and tap into pent-up consumer demand for cars, Studebaker merged with Packard in 1954. But rapidly declining sales, escalating labor costs and shrinking market share threatened the company. Merging with Packard provided an expanded cash pool and larger market share. In 1959, D'Arcy Advertising Co. was hired to handle the marketing program for the 1959 Studebaker-Packard models.
Despite a softening automobile market after the 1950s, Studebaker's sales continued to rise. Studebaker explored the compact market while the larger companies held back. The company enjoyed some success with this approach, particularly with the 1959 and 1961 Larks and the 1961 Hawk.
"The next look"
The company's media planning strategy was based on a mix of magazine, newspaper, radio and, later, TV ads. Typically, a barrage of magazine ads appeared approximately one month after newspapers ran announcements about the new models, so the cars reached dealerships before the ad campaigns began. Color ads were then used to pick up and sustain introductions made at dealer showrooms. Headlines such as "Now here! The 'next look' in cars" appeared in cooperative newspaper ads, while color spreads appeared in magazines such as Life, Newsweek, Better Homes & Gardens, Business Week and Farm Journal. Ads described the styling in futuristic terms as "the next look."
Studebaker ads featured photographs, instead of illustrations, to convey a feeling of realism, believability and glamour. Magazine ads were almost always color and layouts followed the top-to-bottom sequence of picture, headline, copy and logo. Studebaker was known for slogans and headlines in its ads. For example, compact cars were advertised with the slogan, "The common sense cars."
Studebaker's innovative design and advanced engineering were reflected in headlines such as, "From the speedway comes their stamina . . . from the skyway comes their style," "You're out of date without an eight" and "Smart to be seen in . . . smarter to buy." The tradition of reliability and affordability were emphasized in headlines such as, "Your thrifty one in '51," and "Studebaker-the great independent." All of those lines were created by RW&C.
Despite Studebaker's reputation for reliable, innovative products and its commitment to advertising, the Studebaker brothers' dream of becoming the fourth player in the Big Three roster came to an end in the 1960s. In 1950, Studebaker's best year, the company held 4.2% of the automotive market. By the end of 1960, it had dropped to 1.3%.
The autonomous family operation fell victim to the realities of a marketplace that quashed all competitors to the Big Three. Studebaker closed its South Bend plant in December 1963; it shuttered its Canadian operation in 1966.