Dick Johnson took a calculated risk. His boss had just completed a 20-minute presentation telling Chrysler Corp. brass why they should make 20-somethings the prime target for the automaker's new subcompact, Neon.
It was up to Mr. Johnson, the vice chairman-chief creative officer at BBDO Worldwide's Southfield, Mich., office, to explain how to reach these young, skeptical buyers, and along the way establish Neon as a virtual brand, transcending the Dodge and Plymouth badges it would carry.
As he made his final pitch last August for Neon's estimated $80 million launch campaign, Mr. Johnson was certain of one thing: The ads shouldn't pander to the stereotype of grungelike young people dressed in clunky boots and wrinkled dirndl skirts.
His presentation was crucial. Later that morning, the automaker's president, Robert Lutz, and several other executives would hear a second Chrysler agency, Bozell, make its case for the project.
Saying Generation X didn't matter in the creation of the advertising was a bigger gamble than Mr. Johnson's own attire might seem; in his 30 years of agency work, mostly at Chrysler agencies, the client had grown comfortable with Mr. Johnson's trademark cotton pants, open-neck plaid shirt and old sneakers.
Neon is critical to the automaker's future. Its success will determine whether Chrysler can win over a new generation of buyers who will play an increasing role in determining automotive winners and losers into the next century.
Generation X "does not inspire me to do what I have to do," Mr. Johnson said in his presentation. "It's the car that inspires me."
William Oswald, president-ceo of BBDO's Detroit-area office, noticed Mr. Lutz smile at the humor in the proposed spots and nod at the notion the campaign should characterize the car, not the target group of buyers.
Whoever wins, Mr. Oswald thought as he left the meeting, at least I know the client understands our point of view.
A week after the showdown between BBDO and Bozell, John Damoose, then Chrysler's VP-marketing, called Mr. Oswald and Mr. Johnson to the Fox Theatre in Detroit, where Chrysler dealers were being briefed on 1994 products. Chrysler, Mr. Damoose said, had chosen to go with BBDO.
Chrysler's unusual decision to market the same car with one name under two brands led to two inevitables: Neon would have to be built up as a new brand, and Dodge agency BBDO and Plymouth agency Bozell would compete for the assignment.
There were objections that Neon's one-car, two-brand strategy would hurt the company's efforts to build distinct identities for Dodge and Plymouth. But financial considerations won out. Chrysler, investing $1.3 billion in the Neon project, was determined to disprove the notion that no one could profitably design and build a small car in the U.S. And it would be less expensive to engineer, build and market a single car for two distribution systems.
"We believed the way to differentiate ourselves was not with sheet metal, but in exceeding customers' expectations in the segment," says Marty Levine, general manager of Dodge. "We decided to spend our resources on product advantages."
"The whole Neon concept was to ... break out of the mold of where all the other small cars are heading, which have sort of a boring sameness to them," Mr. Lutz says. "We felt the marketing had to be that way, too."
After announcing its decision to launch a single Neon, Mr. Damoose, who left Chrysler last October to join International Family Entertainment, set up a schedule for BBDO and Bozell to outline their strategic thinking. The first question: who to target.
Consumers under age 32 make up 50% of subcompact car buyers, but there was sentiment inside Chrysler to target baby boomers, who have more money and often buy small cars as a second vehicle.
Bill Hackett, BBDO's exec VP-director of strategic planning, directed the research, a process encompassing nearly 30 focus groups. "Boomers view a car more like an appliance," he says, and have low expectations of small cars because of past experiences. Quality, fuel economy and price are their major concerns.
In contrast, the research found 20-somethings are more passionate and demanding about a car's appearance and performance. Owning an automobile is like a right of passage for them.
"We realized that by targeting Generation X, with their long list of demands for the car, that would be the only targeting we needed to do because the same advertising would communicate everything boomers needed to know about the car," Mr. Hackett says.
BBDO sold that basic strategy to Chrysler at the first round of presentations, in March 1993, and Mr. Damoose gave the agencies until June to prepare a creative strategy.
Mr. Johnson and his team began to wrestle with how to communicate the information buyers wanted to know while creating a personality for the car.
"Our research said consumers viewed the car as huggable, lovable, a UFO, a Beetle for the '90s, a car for the Jetsons," Mr. Johnson says. But, he adds, "If we simply created advertising with a personality, it wouldn't be relevant" to Generation X.
BBDO proposed teaser spots leading up to a splash on Super Bowl XXVIII, with commercials including scenes of "a beehive of activity ... the kind of activity one might imagine if a UFO had landed and the Martian was going to have its first press conference," according to storyboards. Voice-over was unclear on what was coming: "People don't really understand the idea that shaped it. It's capable of extrasensory communication. It's constructed with platinum. Rhodium. And newly formed compounds ... no one has ever seen anything quite like it."
In the "unveiling" spot, the storyboard continued, a "monumental door slowly opens to reveal a white Neon." Above the car is written the word, "Hi," meant to establish a friendly persona.
The white car, an unusual element because of difficulty in photographing, is an integral part of the campaign.
"We wanted the essence of the car to be as clean as possible," says Gene Turner, senior VP-deputy creative director. The white car would be surrounded by bright, primary colors throughout the TV and print campaign to create the feeling that Neon "lives in a colorful, happy world."
Another aspect in the introductory ads was the use of a front-end shot, as opposed to the profile usually used in auto advertising, to emphasize the quirky oval headlamps, one of the car's most distinctive design features.
Altogether, BBDO in June showed Chrysler executives 15 sketched, b&w storyboards for proposed commercials. For Mr. Johnson, that presentation was the low point of the process.
"We obviously didn't wow them," he recalls. "We were getting some blank stares." It was his sense the Chrysler officials didn't understand the personality of the advertising because they couldn't see the visuals or hear the music.
"Personally, the chance that my work might never see air distressed me in my heart and my head, when I knew it would work."
Mr. Johnson knew advertising would appeal best to "baby busters" if they didn't characterize the lifestyle of that demographic group. Stereotypical portrayals of young adults-the kind of advertising so many others were doing-could alienate the very audience Neon so needed to attract.
His feelings were strengthened after working with a special panel. The agency had recruited 12 recognized Generation X experts, most of whom worked for young-adult media, to participate in discussions on the segment.
"The intent of the panel was to come to a better understanding of the entire generation," says Mr. Hackett. "We wanted to get at the questions like `Who are these people?' rather than `What do they consume?'*"
The panel proved pivotal. BBDO had been researching the segment for nearly a year using a lifestyle survey, focus groups and Chrysler buyer studies.
But it still didn't know who Generation X really was.
BBDO twice flew the panel to Southfield to meet with its research staff. The agency asked questions about Generation X, showed automotive and other campaigns