GRAND PRIX '97 SALES CAUGHT FIRE IN A BLAZE OF PRODUCT, HOT ADS

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Bill Heugh, brand manager of Pontiac Grand Prix, believes 1997 sales rose significantly over the 1996 model because both the car and the advertising hit the target.

The Grand Prix saw sales of 142,018, up from 104,979 in 1996, according to Automotive News.

Before brand management arrived at General Motors Corp. three years ago, designers and engineers planned vehicles and then turned to marketing to find "hot buttons" to sell them, said Mr. Heugh.

Now, in contrast, marketing staffs work together with designers and engineers to determine what target customers want in styling and features.

CONSUMER DESIRE MATTERS

In planning the 1997 Grand Prix, Pontiac's best-selling car, Mr. Heugh and his team gathered 1,500 Grand Prix and competitive-car owners to test five different throttle linkages -- devices that control acceleration. The target buyers preferred a fairly fast throttle.

"We wouldn't do that before brand management," he said. "Before, all GM cars would have the same throttle."

Mr. Heugh, 55, estimates that he spends about a third of his time developing future products. The rest of his time is spent working on strategy, positioning, advertising and promotions with his Pontiac brand teams and agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Troy, Mich.

The "wider-is-better" tag that launched the '97 Grand Prix and continues on the '98 stems from the car's roots.

"We looked at the first Grand Prix ads from 1962. That's where we came up with `Wide Track'," said Mr. Heugh. The 1997's track -- or distance between the front or rear wheels -- is three inches wider than its predecessor.

WIDE TRACK IS BACK

Pontiac's Wide Track cars first arrived in 1959, with extended axles and sleeker, longer profiles; it sold the popular cars until the early 1970s' energy crunch.

Once the Wide Track design was determined for the '97 model, the "wider-is-better" ad theme fell into place, Mr. Heugh said.

In addition to not working with car developers before brand management, each division also had dedicated staff handling merchandising and promotions for all models that operated in virtual isolation from the advertising staff. But now all such activities are better planned because staff works with dedicated brand teams at both the client and the agency.

Last year, Grand Prix became a sponsor of Winter Fest, a promotion at downhill ski mountains. That tie-in has been expanded this year with an online sweepstakes.

FULL THROTTLE SPENDING

Pontiac's measured media spending on Grand Prix was $45 million in the first three quarters of 1997 vs. $17 million during the same period in 1996, according to Competitive Media reporting. Grand Prix spending in all 1996 totaled $41 million.

Mr. Heugh has been with Pontiac since graduating from Detroit's Wayne State University in 1962. Before being named brand manager of Grand Prix in fall 1995, he was business team manager for Grand Prix, Firebird and Trans Sport.

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