What's the secret to these great campaigns? The car and its marketing somehow make consumers feel they aren't just buying four wheels and a chassis, but a chance to be remade into a reflection of the car's image.
"People want their experience of the product to somehow transform them," says Jay Houghton, senior consultant at Automotive Marketing Consultants.
MEET WALTER MITTY
One of the best examples of cars remaking the image of the drivers is the 1964-65 introduction of the Ford Mustang.
"We got letters from [Mustang buyers] about how the car transformed their lives," says Arnold Grisman, a retired creative director at J. Walter Thompson Co. who worked on the Mustang campaign.
Mustang was sporty, stylish and priced at just $2,368, which put it within reach of many of its key target audience, young drivers in their 20s.
A series of TV spots-dubbed "Walter Mitty"-performed the feat of indelibly setting the image of the Mustang as a car that could transform even the nerdiest of drivers. One commercial opened with scenes of "quiet" Henry Foster, coming out of his antique shop, turning the sign to "out to lunch," before exchanging his sunglasses for racy black sports goggles and his jacket for a red vest. He then hops into his Mustang and takes off for a rendezvous with a lovely lady, while the voice-over asks, "Why don't you change your life?"
"The spot was a pivotal commercial," says Bert Metter, retired chairman of JWT. "It really was done in response to the public's response to the car. People were just so turned on by the car. Ordinary people could get into a Mustang and the car transformed their personality."
THE PEOPLE'S CAR
Personality, whether it's a sexy sports car like the Mustang or a "people's car," as the Volkswagen Beetle came to be known, is a recurring theme among successful car campaigns. "It's personality that makes cars like the Beetle stand out from most car advertising," says Chet Kane, president of Kane, Bortree & Associates, a new-product consultancy.
Julian Koenig, David Reider, Helmut Krone, Ed Russell, Bob Levenson and, of course, William Bernbach were the key creative minds at Doyle Dane Bernbach, New York, responsible for the brash, irreverent ad campaign that produced still-familiar images of the Volkswagen Beetle.
Images such as "Think Small" in print and TV spots that showed basketball great Wilt Chamberlain trying to fold himself into the tiny economy car.
But creating that personality wasn't as simple as the ads seem to indicate. Mr. Krone recalls coming back from VW's production facilities in Germany "wondering what we were going to do with this dumb-looking car."
He credits Ed Russell, the account manager at the time, with developing several Unique Selling Propositions that drove the advertising. They included such things as Beetle's promise that it won't change for the sake of change; the car's rear engine; and VW's incredibly thorough group of auto assembly-line inspectors. All of those USPs spawned now-famous print ads, including the most remembered ad, "Lemon."
"USPs, that's what you look for in every product. And we had them up our nose with this car; it was USPs all over the place," says Mr. Krone.
Volkswagen's U.S. success came at a lucky time, when the world was ready for "sensible, economic" transportation, said Paul R. Lee, then VW's advertising manager, in the early 1960s.
"The success of that campaign had a great deal to do with Bill Bernbach, who approached the advertising with the sense that this was a honest car, all we had to do was tell the truth," says John Slaven, a former director of advertising at Volkswagen and currently president of Slaven Marketing Services.
Honesty alone isn't enough. Successful car advertising also conveys "a sense of something that's very contemporary, that picks up on consumers' sense of `what I need today'," notes Dave Vadehra, president, Video Storyboard Tests. With Mustang, he says, it was a sense of freedom; with the Beetle, it was plain language about a small, economy car.
More recently, with Saturn, it is a campaign that senses people are tired of broken promises and ready for a fresh approach.
Saturn buyers seem to believe they're part of a special relationship, an image carefully crafted and honed by Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco.
Indeed, industry executives point out the car's success owes much to the fact advertising conveys a sense that the buyer is transformed by the experience of buying and driving a Saturn.
Much of the tone of Saturn's marketing campaign is set and directed by Hal Riney, the agency's chairman-CEO and guiding creative light.
Early on, it didn't feel right to boast about a new car, especially one that hadn't even rolled off the production line, says Tom Else, account director at Riney, so the agency let Saturn employees "star" in the commercials, talking about the newly created company and its philosophy of car-making.
"We were trying to give the company and the car a human persona," says Steve Morrissey, account director at Riney. "While everyone else was talking about sheet metal, we talked about the pensions of the automobile workers who were moving to Spring Hill [Tenn.] to build the cars."
There were plenty of skeptics who thought Saturn had turned off into a marketing dead-end by seemingly talking about everything but a car.
But, "People clearly are buying into something more than a car," notes Dave O'Hare, creative director at Riney.
In other words, by buying a Saturn, consumers are adopting the lifestyle and image the car and its advertising convey-just like they did when they bought into the mystique of the Mustang and the practicality of the VW Beetle.
At a time when technical and performance breakthroughs are rare, personality and philosophy should be top marketing priorities. Just as they were for Mustang, the Beetle and Saturn.