Compact pickups pump up amenities

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Compact pickup truck marketers are casting a wider net for prospects by offering more doors, bigger cabs and other creature comforts.

General Motors Corp.'s Chevy, Nissan North America and Toyota Motor Sales USA are among the marketers adding amenities, following the lead of full-size pickups -- a move that Wes Brown, analyst at market researcher Nextrend, said is aimed at attracting more families to the flat segment.

Toyota's Tacoma Double Cab model "opens up a whole new market potential for us with five passenger seats," said Steve Sturm, VP-marketing at the automaker. "It's like an affordable SUV." The new model is due this fall.

Tacoma's advertising, when it arrives in the fourth quarter from Saatchi & Saatchi, Torrance, Calif., will focus on the Double Cab and be "much more aggressive" than this model year's "adrenalin" effort which showed how driving the truck boosted drivers' adrenalin. Ad campaigns for Tacoma and Toyota's full-size Tundra pickup will each get dedicated taglines, neither of which he would reveal.

THINKING YOUNGER

The average age of small pickup buyers industrywide is in the mid-40s, said Dora Nowicki, assistant brand manager-marketing of Chevrolet's S10 pickup at GM. To target younger male buyers in their mid-20s to late 30s, GM will offer its "first true four-door" crew cab in the new S10, which went into production July 31. Unlike smaller models, crew cabs offer four doors and a fullsize back seat. Buyers for the five-adult crew cab S10 will mainly come from owners of small sport utilities and midsize cars, she said.

The price is also higher than regular compact pickups. The range for the upcoming S10 will start at about $12,500 for the regular-cab model, compared to $25,369 for a fully loaded crew cab.

Chevrolet will launch the S10 regionally, as it did earlier with the Suburban sport utility. Ads from Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., will start in the West and feature the bigger cab. Ms. Nowicki said she'd already approved TV spots to air in the West sometime in October, but production could likely be delayed by the Screen Actors Guild strike.

Nissan, meanwhile, is shooting for younger buyers with its upcoming campaign for its radically restyled Frontier. Although the median age of 2000-model year Frontier owners is 44, the 2001 model will go after the 25- to 34-year-old set, said Fred Suckow, model line marketing manager for the pickup. That's because among the feedback in consumer focus groups was the comment "This is not your father's pickup," he stated.

COMPETING MODELS

Nissan plans to heavily target owners of competing models, rather than the 1.7 million Frontier owners; Mr. Suckow said Toyota's Tacoma is the main vehicle prospects also consider. To reach them, Nissan sent direct mail to 300,000 prospects July 28.

Nissan's new Frontier has undergone a dramatic restyling, with a six-cylinder engine and optional leather seats for the first time in the 2001 model. "We were vanilla," admitted Mr. Suckow, and Nextrend's Mr. Brown said he expects the facelift to bring Nissan the youngest, affluent buyers in the segment.

Nissan anticipates Frontier buyers will have household incomes of $55,000 vs. the $40,000 average income level for 2000 model buyers. The pickup's sticker price starts at $11,699 for the base model and goes up to $25,099 for the top-of-the-line Crew Cab with four-wheel drive and a new supercharged engine. Sales are expected to jump 27.1% to 122,000 units in the next 12 months, from just more than 96,000 last year.

The national Frontier campaign begins Aug. 28 on TV in a $25 million-to-$35 million media push and attempts an emotional bent, since younger buyers are passionate about their pickups, said Mr. Suckow. TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., filmed the so-called "night campaign," showing a silver pickup on dark roads as well as a dark set. The campaign tries to "stop people in their tracks and change their perception about the brand," he said. Ad spending will be augmented by regional dealer ad groups.

HIRSHBERG RETURNS

Despite the SAG strike, now-retired Nissan chief U.S. designer Jerry Hirshberg will appear in spots for two weeks, although remaining spots are product-focused and won't use actors.

Nissan started offering a Frontier Crew Cab model 15 months ago, and Mr. Suckow said many of those buyers have come from the ranks of SUV owners.

Industry sales in the compact segment this year should slide 2.8% to 1.04 million from 1.07 million last year, said Nextrend's Mr. Brown, pointing out the projections don't include cross-over vehicles such as Ford Motor Co.'s SportTrac pickup-SUV combination. Although the expanded offerings of four-door crew cabs will stop new, young families from defecting to four-door cars, sales are still projected to stay flat to down. Nextrend predicts conventional small pickup sales will drop to 865,000 units in 2002, a 19.2% drop from 1999.

Nissan's Mr. Suckow has another view. He believes the plethora of four doors in compact pickups will attract would-be buyers of full-size trucks, a category that accounts for 2 million units annually.

HURT BY INCENTIVES

Nissan research also revealed the other leading vehicle considered by a very high percentage of its Frontier Crew Cab buyers was a full-size pickup. But compact pickup sales get hurt, like they did last summer, when incentives on full-size pickups go over $1,000.

Chevrolet's Ms. Nowicki said research shows the S10's market has growth potential. She doesn't expect the S10 Crew Cabs to cannibalize the brand's more profitable SUVs and said industrywide, roomier cabs in the small pickups should account for about 25% of total segment sales.

"The jury is still out" on what the crew-cab proliferation will do to the category, she said. "It appears on the surface there's a lot of upside potential."

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