CHRYSLER OFFICIALS ADMIT TO FLUBBING INTREPID RELAUNCH: ADS PLANNED FOR FALL WILL FEATURE MORE CAR SHOTS, LESS TECHNOLOGY

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Chrysler Corp. executives are admitting they botched the launch of the redesigned 1998 Dodge Intrepid earlier this year.

Although a top Chrysler executive blamed advertising for Intrepid's lackluster sales, others inside and outside the company cited other causes, including disappointing support from dealer groups and the late arrival of popular-price models.

"Unfortunately, it's been a pretty erratic launch for a lot of reasons," said James Julow, general manager of Chrysler's Dodge Division. But "I don't think it was the advertising" that led to disappointing sales.

TEPID INTREPID

Intrepid sales are tepid, slumping 39% to 8,263 from January through May vs. the same period a year ago, Chrysler reported last week. The new-generation Intrepid was launched in January.

"Part of the problem may have been our extremely visual, arresting TV ads," said Robert Lutz, vice chairman of Chrysler, who retires July 1. "They are telling the customer what kind of kitchen knives we use when all they really care about is the food."

BBDO Worldwide, Southfield, Mich., created four spots touting Chrysler's so-called CATIA process used to design and engineer the car on computers. The computer-generated spots, which used actual CATIA software, showed more high-tech shots than the actual car, which appears briefly at the end (AA, Dec. 15).

Mr. Julow, in his current job since April, maintained the ad campaign did exactly what it should have -- break through the clutter.

Post-launch testing revealed the TV spots "developed for us good numbers for [Intrepid] consideration, awareness and first-choice preference," he said.

The 1999 Intrepid won't get as many changes as the '98, and new ads -- coming this fall -- will show more of the car and less technology, said Mr. Julow. The new ads are said to feature Dodge spokesman/actor Ed Hermann.

Dick Johnson, president and chief creative officer of BBDO, declined to discuss new executions.

REASON WHY

The idea behind the computer process-focused launch spots, he said, was "if the car is designed and assembled and tested this way, then it should be just about perfect. That was the message we hoped to convey, and in testing that was the message that got across. Now it's time to discuss the car."

Mr. Julow said one problem with the launch was that Dodge decided first to build the ES model, the highest-price Intrepid, starting at $23,000 and going up to about $25,000 with options. The bulk of Intrepid sales, and the mid-size car segment it plays in, traditionally have been more in $20,000 price range.

DEALER SPENDING SMALL

Dodge also was hoping dealer groups would spend about $25 million in the first quarter to broadcast the national TV spots for Intrepid in their regions, according to two supplier executives close to Chrysler. By mid-February, Dodge realized the dealer groups had only spent about $2 million.

The division convinced dealer groups to spend more on Intrepid and, by the end of March, they had spent $8 million more.

Dodge dealer Rob Robbins, in Garden City, Mich., said his dealer group didn't advertise Intrepid in the early months because of the shortage of less-expensive cars.

"We didn't have the popularly priced product," he said. "Now we're selling well here because we have a very strong leasing package -- $279 a month. But we didn't get that until March or April."

About a month ago, BBDO produced new regional TV spots for dealers, and while one recycles some of the high-tech footage it's only in the background. The car is the star.

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