Acura's first ads from new shop take high road

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Armed with a different strategy and redesigned cars, American Honda Motor Co.'s Acura Division breaks its first ad campaign from its new agency on national TV Feb. 27.

"It's a really important time for Acura because we're making changes from a brand standpoint and a product standpoint," said Rob Allan, ad manager at the car marketer. Acura is heading upscale now, continuing a product renaissance started last year when its retooled TL sedan dialed up the carmaker's performance image.

Acura's research over the last two years revealed the division needed a clearer positioning, said Dick Colliver, exec VP of Acura.

PUSHING PERFORMANCE

"We want to be known for our company's performance package and precision-crafted vehicles, and we'll stress those values." Initial ads will support its CL model launch and is one of Acura's biggest ad efforts. Mr. Colliver said the push will be larger than the TL's last year, but he declined to reveal specifics.

Of the $93 million Acura spent in measured media during the first nine months of 1999, $17 million was devoted to TL and $16 million to CL, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica, Calif., uses an umbrella "Road trip" ad theme in the trio of TV spots to launch the second-generation, 2001-model CL coupe. Each 30-second spot opens with a shot of someone turning the key in the ignition, followed by the super "Where are you going to go?" Peggy Sirota directed all three CL spots. Upcoming commercials for all other Acura models will use the same opening, although trip destinations will vary by target.

The unified look will "make the [ad] budget work harder and go farther," said Gerry Rubin, CEO of the agency, which won the creative account last year from Suissa Miller, Los Angeles, without a review in what the carmarker termed a cost-cutting move.

TARGETS LEXUS

Honda was the first Japanese U.S. transplant to start an upscale division in 1986. But in unit sales, Acura has lagged Toyota Motor Sales USA's Lexus Division, which arrived in 1989.

Acura "didn't redefine itself after the arrival of new players like Lexus," said Jim Hall, VP-industry analysis at consultancy AutoPacific. But Acura enjoyed significant sales increases with last year's TL. Acura plans to build its revival around three core vehicles -- the TL, CL and a sport utility due in the fall. "They're trying to find some clear area around Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz" to attract more customers, Mr. Hall added.

"Regrettably, some of the strengths seemed to get away from the brand" over the years, Mr. Rubin conceded. "We want to bring Acura back to where it was in 1986 -- an aspirational brand."

Mr. Allan predicted Acura would sell 30,000 CLs this year vs. nearly 21,000 in 1999. Acura expects to sell 60,000 TLs vs. 56,500 in 1999.

The redesigned CL aims for an increase in male buyers beyond the current 50% breakout. The 260 horsepower engine of the performance version Type S should attract more males, Mr. Allan said.

MAJOR PUSH NEXT MONTH

Although the CL ad launch will run 24 weeks through July, the biggest TV push comes in March, said Bill Hagelstein, exec VP on the account at Rubin Postaer. The buy includes network, cable and spot TV. Magazine ads break in March issues, including Forbes, Fortune, GQ, Men's Health, Time and Vanity Fair. A gatefold arrives in 11 publications in April.

The CL push will challenge "existing perceptions of what Acura is," said Pen Pendleton, VP-account director at Rubin Postaer. He explained some consumers "don't think Acura is quite for them, maybe they don't think we have that same driveway status our competitors have even though we believe our product is comparable."

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