Ford, JWT stall over push to launch 2002 Explorer

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Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Division and J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit, are struggling to create the launch campaign for the totally remodeled 2002 Explorer sport utility. The Explorer is the nation's best-selling sport utility, but a shadow has hung over the SUV, which has been the most impacted by dozens of fatal accidents tied to last year's Bridgestone/Firestone tire recall.

WPP Group's JWT has presented storyboards for more than 40 TV spots, all of which have been shot down by Ford, according to an executive close to the situation. Both Ford and JWT officials denied they're in a quandary over how to launch the Explorer.

Jan Klug, who oversees advertising as marketing communications manager at Ford, declined to discuss the number of storyboards presented. But she said talk about problems is untrue. "We did a couple of rounds of creative exploration, but no more or less than other launches," she said, adding it's too early to discuss the introduction.

"We have several different campaigns we're looking at," said a Ford spokeswoman. "Plans are not finalized" for the ad blitz due in mid-April, she added.

JWT's Dave Latta, senior partner-group brand director on the Ford account at JWT, did not discuss specific numbers, but said it's not unusual for the agency to present several executions for the same launch. The campaign is "definitely moving forward," he said.

Explorer ads will fall under the "Ford Outfitters. No boundaries" umbrella ad theme for all the division's SUVs, Mr. Latta added.

Ford is expected to spend big on the 2002 Explorer launch-at least $35 million. The brand spent just $20 million in measured media on the SUV during the first 10 months of 2000 vs. $65 million in calendar 1999, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

Wes Brown, an analyst at consultancy Nextrend, said the ads shouldn't mention the tire recall since many people have forgotten about it and "most people didn't feel Ford was at fault." Without directly mentioning safety, the ads should "talk about the fantastic technological innovations on it for a mass-market SUV," he added.

The redone mid-size Explorer, which starts at $24,620, arrives as the SUV segment is overcrowded with "other interesting alternatives," said Dan Gorrell, a VP at consultantcy Strategic Vision. Explorer will compete with its smaller and cheaper sibling, the Ford Escape.

Explorer sales fell 19.5% in January 2001 to 24,194 units vs. January 2000. Ford sold 445,157 Explorers last year vs. 428,772 in 1999, but fourth-quarter sales slid 18%, according to Automotive News.

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