Honda does a Volvo, plays on safety

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Honda is trying to out-Volvo Volvo.

American Honda Motor Co.'s Honda brand has a reputation for reliability, while its Acura is known for performance. Now the Japanese automaker is adopting a new positioning, setting itself up as the safety leader for drivers who want crash protection without a luxury-car price.

"Safety is a part of what people are looking for in long-term value and confidence," said Rob Alen, manager-corporate advertising for American Honda. "From the company's point of view, there's an element of responsibility to try to do the right thing."

New advertising is in the works from independent Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica, with a TV and magazine push slated for late fall. Honda signaled its direction earlier this summer with a single newspaper execution themed "Safety for Everyone."


The first Honda corporate safety ad is simple, listing equipment that will come standard on all but three Honda and Acura vehicles by the end of 2006. Nearly all models either already have, or will have many of the features, such as standard side curtain airbags, by year-end.

The safety features will come on all models, said Tom Peyton, senior manager-national advertising on the Honda brand. "Safety should not be relegated to a price-point," he said. "We see safety high on consumers' consideration list and we think it's the right thing to do."

danger of diluting image

Consultant Charlie Hughes is skeptical about the strategy. He cautioned that broadening an automotive position can confuse people and dilute a brand's status by siphoning marketing money away from the brand's core essence. "It sounds like the Volvo-ization of Honda," he said, a reference to the Ford Motor Co.-owned brand's longstanding safety positioning. "No one buys a product they think is unsafe."

Thomas Andersson, exec VP-marketing at Volvo Cars of North America, said he applauds other carmakers that focus on safety. "Every time someone does, our recall goes up," he said.

Acura will approach safety messages differently than its sibling. Susie Rossick, the brand's national advertising manager, said "safety is a given," taken for granted by buyers of premium vehicles. Still, Acura raises the issue in a "safety-through-innovation" area of its 2005-model brochures. Two TV spots for its new RL sedan, breaking in mid-October, will be more product-focused, as will the other eight TV spots for Acura vehicles, she said, adding that there will probably be a dedicated print ad on safety in December.

Mr. Hughes said the positioning could be in anticipation of federal standards that could force automakers to include certain safety features in their vehicles. (The government is considering setting standards for braking distances and tire sizes, and instituting rollover ratings).

"Honda's saying, `Let's be there first,"' he said.

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