HONDA KICKS OFF PRELAUNCH ADS FOR NEW MINIVAN: AUTO MARKETER FOLLOWS STRATEGY IT USED EARLIER IN SUCCESSFUL LAUNCH OF SUV

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American Honda Motor Co. is using teaser ads to build early awareness for the bigger, more powerful Honda minivan being introduced this fall.

Although Honda hasn't revealed the minivan's name, the marketer kicked off a targeted pre-launch ad for the vehicle in May issues of about a dozen magazines, including Money and Better Homes & Gardens.

"We're trying to get the word out," said Paul Sellers, national advertising manager for Honda.

The carmaker used a similar strategy two years ago to introduce Honda's first sport-utility, the CR-V.

BIG 6-CYLINDER MINIVAN

The new minivan will be more competitive in the segment because it's bigger than Honda's current Odyssey and will have a standard six-cylinder engine, com- pared to Odyssey's four-cylinder model.

Honda hasn't announced whether it will keep selling the Odyssey, and it's not known whether it is considering using the Odyssey name for the new minivan.

Odyssey sales in 1997 were 20,333, according to Honda. In the period January through April 1998, the marketer sold 1,365 units, a 32.6% drop from the same period a year earlier.

The print ad, from Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica, Calif., shows tea leaves on the bottom on an empty china cup. The headline reads: "There's another way to learn about the minivan in your future." The accompanying business reply card offers more minivan information by mail or e-mail.

DIRECT APPEAL

Separately, Honda has sent a direct-mail piece to nearly 200,000 owners of Honda or Acura vehicles who also own a competitor's minivan. Direct mail was dropped to 1 million Little League households touting the minivan. Rubin Postaer subsidiary R.B. Direct, Santa Monica, handled those programs.

John Bulcroft, president of automotive consultancy Advisory Group, said Honda is smart to run pre-launch advertising. He said Mercedes-Benz of North America set the pace for such programs with its successful, extensive pre-launch activity for its M-Class sport-utility.

ODYSSEY `BROKE THE MOLD'

But he said he doesn't understand Honda's unwillingness to release the new minivan's name. And he doesn't think Honda should keep the Odyssey name.

While Odyssey "broke the mold" in the minivan segment because of its size, he said the vehicle "doesn't have a lot of positive baggage."

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