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A 28-minute infomercial has customers rolling into the showroom.

The Memo

It slices! It dices! It cuts! It curls! In the exclamation point-ridden world of infomercials, the last thing you'd expect to see is a long-format spot for a luxury vehicle. And yet nestled among the closet organizers and souped-up food processors is a 28-minute spot for Land Rover - a high-end line of Sport Utility Vehicles that Ford recently purchased from BMW. It's the all-you'll-ever-need-forever SUV, with off-road capabilities that are unrivaled in your average gas guzzler. On location in the rugged open country of Arizona and New Mexico, the Land Rover swims! It climbs! It handles rocky terrain as easily as the smooth asphalt road to the mall.

How in the world did Land Rover decide to go the way of the infomercial?

The Discovery

Land Rover has a long, cold highway ahead in the race to gain mind and market share with U.S. consumers. According to Automotive News, the company sells more vehicles in the United Kingdom than it does in the United States. And its tough trucks aren't exactly flying off the lot here. As of now, there are 150,000 Land Rover owners in the United States, according to Kim McCullough, manager of Land Rover's Discovery model. That's a pretty small slice of the 20 million SUVs in circulation in the U.S.

So when the company relaunched its Discovery model - the stateside bestseller - it was on a mission to "reach out and bring more consumers into the Land Rover fold," says McCullough. Executives figured that their best strategy was to communicate the "Land Rover ownership experience." For new buyers, the automaker engineered a unique sales concept: Land Rover dealerships feature obstacle courses out front so that prospective buyers can take a test drive on rough terrain, to get an off-road experience, in the middle of all the strip malls. The experience continues once the keys are handed over, because owners can also participate in the "muddy oval" club, which includes off-roading classes and annual quarterly events.

That's just some of what the Land Rover team wanted to communicate to prospective buyers. They also wanted to show consumers some of the more interesting features on the dashboard. For instance, one gizmo raises and lowers the vehicle's body, to make it easier to cross those pesky raging rivers when the bridge goes out. (Or to get the kids to school on a snowy morning without having to shovel the driveway.) Given how much they wanted to show off to new buyers, Land Rover's team decided it needed an alternative format. "No matter how expressive you can get with traditional media, you're still limited to 30 seconds in a commercial, or limited copy space in print," says McCullough.

Land Rover was up against still another challenge: In-house focus groups indicated that many of their prospects were not even considering a Land Rover because they assumed that the vehicles were out of their price range. But, as the company likes to emphasize, you can get into a Land Rover for somewhere in the mid-30s. "We had to communicate that information without losing the mystique or the aspirational nature of our brand," says McCullough. "It's a delicate balance."

What to do? At one of their regular meetings with dealers, company execs found out that many of their retailers were driving traffic into their showroom through, of all things, infomercials. McCullough says the idea clicked with the marketing team right away, as the company already had a long-standing practice of producing videos of owner events.

And when you examine the demographics of infomercial viewers, the appeal becomes even more clear. The average Land Rover buyer is 43 years old. Sixty-six percent are male, 75 percent are married, and less than 40 percent of owners have children. For a company intent on extending its reach, the demographics of viewers who watch these long-form commercials on networks and cable stations other than QVC or The Home Shopping Network are compelling: The largest share of viewers are younger - aged 18 to 24, single, and attend college. The split between male and female viewers was practically even. Could the long-form make the difference in Land Rover sales?

The Tactics

The team at Land Rover hired Vermont Studios to produce an infomercial, the same studio that had produced videos of their owner events. Instead of an ultra-staged talk show format, Land Rover picked Southwestern desert hues as the backdrop for their pitch. "Bullet Canyon," intones the rugged male host, with perfectly wind-blown dark hair. A group of fun-loving Land Rover owners are gathered for an off-roading experience. Interspersed with glamour shots of the vehicle, the host emphasizes the rugged effectiveness of the automobile with its absolute comfort and luxury. He also emphasizes the safety features, and of course, the great price: $35,000.

The next scene is at a Land Rover dealer, and is an obvious pitch to the female buyer. A female host explains that the dealership "looks more like a hunting and fishing store than a car store...the decor echoes adventure - see these great props with a local flavor?" It shows a young, female customer in leather pants enjoying a "low pressure, friendly, and considerate" buying experience. Then it's back to testosterone overload, driving the Land Rover across a river in the Southwest.

Despite the spot's hard sell, you won't see them trying to close the deal. No exhortations to call an 800 number and slap a Land Rover on your credit card. Which means that the ad isn't truly an example of direct response television. "The point of the infomercial is to drive traffic to the dealers," explains McCullough. Individual retailers may make the pitch a little harder - local dealers have a chance to insert a customized message in segment breaks.

The Payoff

The first infomercial ran in 1998, and between 1998 and 1999, North American sales were up by 37 percent, with sales of the Discovery model up 50 percent, says McCullough. Of course, the company had other marketing efforts in progress at the same time. But customers are crediting the infomercials for their trip to Land Rover dealers. And although the company hasn't measured the success of the infomercial specifically, they have enough confidence in the strategy to do it again this year. "I think the infomercials are great. I can't think of another way - outside of someone coming in to one of our retail centers - to get insight into what owning a Land Rover product is all about," says McCullough.

What the Critics Say

Smart move, says Chris Cedergren, an automotive analyst at Nextrend, a market research consulting firm in Thousand Oaks, California. "Infomercials in general have been exploding in popularity over the last three or four years. But for the auto market, it's a relatively new phenomenon." Since the market for SUVs is a traffic jam of competing products and marketing clutter, "the infomercial gets Land Rover above the fray, and it showcases what the brand is all about," he says. "When you're a brand that's rooted in a lot of history and engineering prowess - and that sets Land Rover apart from everyone else out there - the only way you can communicate that in comprehensive detail is either through a publication or through a television show."

But smart doesn't mean safe. "The danger is in how you position the infomercial. You don't want it to be perceived as filler - and a lot of infomercials are perceived as filler. You need to have top notch, over-the-top production in a station that's consistent with the quality of the overall show," he says. And in fact, Land Rover's infomercials have aired on national cable networks, such as The Discovery Channel, The Travel Channel, CNBC and Outdoor Life as well as some regional network television stations.

If sumptuous scenery and buff hosts are considered top notch, then Land Rover may just have succeeded in avoiding the "filler" label. But if their marketing department decides to stick with the infomercial tactic, they may want to reconsider that obstacle course outside their showrooms. It might get a whole lot harder to navigate if late night infomercial watchers are falling asleep behind the wheel.

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