ACURA TAKES A LOOK UNDER THE HOOD;CONSULTANT BEGINS RE-EVALUATION OF ALL ASPECTS OF HONDA DIVISION

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As Acura breaks campaigns this week for its all-new RL sedan and CL coupe, the division is beginning an ambitious study looking at everything from its logo to ad themes.

Richard Thomas, exec VP of the Acura division of American Honda Motor Co., has hired frogdesign, a California design firm, to prepare the massive evaluation.

ASSESSING ALL ASPECTS

Eric Conn, American Honda senior manager of automotive advertising, would confirm only that Acura has hired a consultant to evaluate everything from image to showroom design to custom-er treatment.

"This is setting a roadmap....a good, honest introspection," Mr. Conn said.

The study will look at perceptions about Acura, the logo and merits of ad taglines. But Mr. Conn said it won't specifically grade advertising.

The marketer has another study under way of media buying assignments at American Honda (AA, Feb. 26).

As all this takes place, Acura agency Ketchum Advertising is counting on hot sales of the new luxury lineup to end long-simmering speculation about an agency review.

"The products are in place. The rumors will go away the minute the sales take off," said Tim Hart, exec VP-chief operating officer at Ketchum's Los Angeles office.

And Mr. Conn confirmed that the more immediate test for Ketchum will be what happens in coming months with store traffic, deals written and sales closed at a selected list of dealerships Acura is gauging.

MAKING THE DEALERS HAPPY

"The dealers are our customers," Mr. Conn noted. "If they're selling cars, they are a happy group."

Acura has replaced all but one of its key models over the past year, culminating in the launch of the new $41,000 flagship RL and $22,000 CL.

Division sales edged up in January and February, but Mr. Hart vows sales now "will ratchet up very quickly."

If he's wrong, other agencies-including Honda's Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica, Calif.-are waiting in the wings.

Combined spending for the simultaneous launch of RL and CL is expected to be on par with the $50 million the division invested last year in the TL introduction.

Acura's old models, such as Legend, were better known than the marque. The company is switching to alphanumeric names, putting the emphasis on the Acura brand to reclaim the cachet lost with the subsequent arrival of Toyota Motor Sales USA's Lexus and Nissan Motor Corp. USA's Infiniti, and the re-emergence of European brands.

The RL launch began in February with a spot showing the sedan being airlifted to an island paradise, but the heavy effort begins this week with two new 30-second RL spots and two 30-second CL commercials. The ads signal the first significant work done by veteran car creative Larry Kopald, who joined the agency last year as exec VP-executive creative director.

It's a disparate campaign focusing on luxury and performance, with several spots espousing the theme, "Luxury doesn't have to be boring."

Acura also is launching a print campaign.

For now, Acura is proceeding without a tagline.

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