A J.D. Power & Associates survey based on cars registered between May 1992 and April 1993 found that while imports represented 41.9% of all cars leased or purchased for personal use, they won 52.2% of black customers.
Obviously, General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. realize they have a long way to go if they're to reverse the trend. And with Detroit's profits climbing and the prices of Japanese import cars soaring, the Big 3 are determined to increase their standing with black buyers.
Among the signs of their renewed interest are Chrysler's and Ford's changes in agencies handling their African-American accounts. The reviews showed that Detroit marketers, usually married to the status quo, are pursuing new ideas to attract black consumers.
This effort also meshes with the fact that carmakers are de-emphasizing mass marketing in favor of more targeted efforts, said James Julow, Chrysler's director of marketing operations.
"Micromarketing is becoming the industry standard," Mr. Julow said. "It leads you to all kinds of different special interest groups, whether ethnically based, life-style-based, demographically based or geographically based."
Chrysler named Don Coleman & Associates, Bingham Farms, Mich., for its estimated $12 million African-American account, replacing Lockhart & Pettus, New York.
Coleman's first work broke April 1, a TV and magazine campaign for the Neon.
One of the four 30-second Neon spots, titled "Mother World," uses singer Lena Horne for the voice-over.
In the commercial, a transparent Neon is superimposed over images of nature, an Egyptian sphinx, a galaxy of stars and a child, until the car finally appears to drive into the brain of a young black woman.
Representing the "voice" of the planet, Ms. Horne says, "I have seen the birth of jazz, heard the blues cry its first notes .*.*. yesterday I sang a hip-hop duet with the wind. Now, I want to have some real fun."
At Ford Division, UniWorld Group, New York, replaces Burrell Advertising, Chicago, on what had been an estimated $10 million account.
John Vanderzee, Ford's advertising manager, said UniWorld's first work will probably start in late summer, after which Ford will increase African-American ad spending by an unspecified amount.
UniWorld also handles marketing to blacks for Ford's Lincoln-Mercury Division.
Ford and Chrysler executives are careful not to criticize their former African-American agencies. Indeed, Detroit's problems have more to do with poor products and a failure to spend enough money trying to attract black consumers, even though African-Americans make up more than 12% of the U.S. population, according to the 1990 census.
However, once the marketers smelled a growing opportunity, it was probably inevitable that they would be open to new ideas from other agencies.
On another front, GM's Cadillac began a test April 1 of direct marketing campaigns directed at affluent black consumers in Houston and Washington.
In Houston, Cadillac is informing 25,000 older black consumers that it will donate $50 to minority-oriented charities in the name of each person who takes a test drive. Cadillac will make the same offer to 25,000 younger prospects in Washington, and will pre-approve credit in advance for those consumers.
The promotional program, being handled by Cadillac agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., is aimed at stemming a defection of young, affluent black consumers to import brands, said Janet Eckhoff, advertising and market planning director for that GM division. Cadillac attracted nearly half of African-American luxury car buyers five years ago but now gets less than 30%, according to the company's figures.
"Imports have catered to younger African-American buyers and are doing well with them," Ms. Eckhoff said. "We have to be more relevant."
In conjunction with Cadillac's test promotions, the division has conducted sensitivity training programs at dealerships, she said.
"Detroit has suddenly gotten its act together and taken a more aggressive role in general," said Byron Lewis, UniWorld chairman-ceo.
Coleman President-CEO Donald Coleman said Detroit automakers "finally realized the buying power of the community."
Mr. Coleman said one way to advertise more effectively to black consumers is to portray them in a take-charge way, instead of a generic warm-and-fuzzy drive to grandma's house.
Industry observers advance several reasons why imports have fared well, including better marketing and higher quality products in the lower-price end of the market.
The more established Japanese car companies won a certain degree of loyalty from African-Americans a decade or more ago. At that time, the Japanese were manufacturing the so-called "econo-boxes," or entry-level cars. The biggest reason for loyalty, however, wasn't price but dependability.
Black consumers remain disproportionately represented in the "basic small" segment, according to the Power Car Media Report. The study found that 32.5% of all black consumers' car purchases or leases were "basic small," while overall the "basic small" segment accounted for 25.8% of sales and leases for personal use.
When Detroit produced a series of lackluster small cars in the 1970s and 1980s, it opened the way for importers to establish an image of high quality and reliability.
Importers also gained credibility by being visible in black-oriented media, said Bob Hill, executive director of the National Association of Minority Automotive Dealers.
"The domestics have done a much poorer job of advertising. You're much more likely to see Honda or Toyota on BET or on the back cover of Ebony," he said.
Auto marketers constantly wrestle with how much of their budgets should be allocated to reaching specific targets vs. putting the money into general media that attracts a broad mix of prospects.
Eric Conn, senior manager of advertising at American Honda Motor Co., said persistent media reps from ethnic publications and cable networks, in part, woke him up to the need to address the black consumer market. Honda hired Muse Cordero Chen, Los Angeles, about five years ago to develop campaigns for the black consumer market.
"We probably didn't do any product advertising for 18 months," Mr. Conn said. "We wanted to be invited into the community."
Honda first set up a national academic competition called the Honda Campus All-Star Challenge, pulling contestants from schools affiliated with the Historically Black Colleges & Universities. The company hosted the 16 quarterfinalists in Los Angeles for a week, with the finalists appearing on a TV show carried by Black Entertainment Television.
Mr. Vanderzee said Ford plans to do a better job of communicating the value of its vehicles to black consumers. "Particularly during the recent recessionary period, a big reason the imports did well is the perception that they have better price, value and quality," he said. "Our job is to change that perception, to do a better job of conveying that we have quality products."
Cleveland Horton contributed to this story.