After being rammed from its place as the third-best-selling vehicle brand by Toyota in 2001 and then shoved further aside by the Honda brand three years later, Dodge -- now the No. 5-selling vehicle brand -- has Nissan close on its tail.
The Nissan brand, which outsold Dodge by just 10 vehicles in February, trailed it by only 1,913 units for the first two months of this year, according to Automotive News. And experts trace the falloff to Dodge's decision to soften up its tough-guy image to appeal to a broader audience.
Has become 'vanilla'
"When you try to appeal to a wider range of people, you frequently become vanilla," said Todd Turner, president of consultant CarConcepts. "Dodge needs to be the Cherry Garcia of the auto world."
The Chrysler brand, with its macho models Magnum, Charger and Ram, traditionally has been positioned and advertised as bold and powerful -- the exception being its Caravan minivan. But lately Dodge has been trying to broaden its appeal by getting closer with its, er, feminine side.
According to a spokeswoman, 64% of all Dodge buyers in January were under age 45 and female. But now that it's moved away from its "aggressive, muscular, in-your-face" styling and positioning, said Wes Brown, VP of consultant Iceology, "I don't know what Dodge is supposed to stand for as a brand."
The industry has a long product-development time of several years, so Mr. Brown blamed Germany's Daimler AG for what he called "a number of missteps in product planning" in softening the look of recent and upcoming Dodge models. Daimler sold an 80% stake in Chrysler last spring to Cerberus Capital Management.
No more hillbillies
Chrysler's former exec VP-sales and marketing, Joe Eberhardt, tempered Dodge's macho ad messaging starting in 2006 because he felt the male actors who chased the brand and its Hemi engine ("That thing got a Hemi in it?") were hillbillies who didn't represent the target, said an executive who worked closely with him. But the TV commercials were meant to show actors' desire for Dodge.
Then last fall, Dodge shortened its "Grab Life by the Horns" ad tag to "Grab Life" for the launch of the redone Caravan and Grand Caravan minivans, announcing that it would give the brand wider appeal.
Chrysler Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl Meyer, who was not available for comment, said earlier this year at the Automotive New World Congress that she was bringing back the full ad tag for the Dodge Ram pickup, but would use the shorter version for other car campaigns. "Truck owners told us they relate to the idea of the horns," she said in her speech there.
But the designs remain more inclusive. The new Dodge Journey mid-size crossover, which will be launched with an ad blitz in early April, has a softer, more-feminine design, said Lincoln Merrihew, senior VP of consultant TNS Automotive. Ditto for the Dodge Avenger and upcoming redo this fall of the Ram full-size pickup, the experts said.
The design of the next-generation Ram, unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January, is "toned down," which could make it appeal to a broader audience but "will alienate the very specific market that loved it," Mr. Turner predicted. Dodge ads now are touting its industry-first interior features, such as Stow 'n Go floor storage and Swivel 'n Go optional second-row seats, said Mr. Merrihew -- not exactly features that ooze machismo.
'People buy the brand'
"You have to have both brand and features, but first people buy the brand, then features" said Julie Roehm, who left her position as marketing communications director at the defunct Chrysler Group in early 2006, after five years there. Now a consultant, Ms. Roehm said that Detroit carmakers have tended to abandon brand advertising in times of trouble to dial up sales messaging. That strategy, she said, "long term, costs more to build your brand message."
Dodge is also getting hammered by the industrywide slowdown in sales of pickups and SUVs, a segment in which it is heavily represented. Dodge doesn't have an entry in small crossover vehicles, a segment Tom Libby, senior director of auto consultant Power Information Network, called "the sweet spot of the market." That segment accounted for 10% of total U.S. sales in the first two months of 2008, and gained a point of share compared to the same period a year ago.