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THINK NATIONALLY, ACT AND SELL LOCALLY NATIONAL ADS MIGHT MISS REGIONAL NUANCES,BUT FINANCING, NEW FEATURES MEET NEEDS

By Published on .

Like most other Jeep dealers in the country, Jerry Lampley sells all the Jeep Grand Cherokees he can get.

The rugged, classic, $32,000 sport-utility has been a marketing smash for Chrysler Corp. All over America, retailers sell out, search their territories for more, and sell out again.

But at the Star Chevrolet/Chrysler dealership Mr. Lampley manages in Wiggins, Miss., a community of about 4,000 near the Gulf of Mexico, there's an art to it-an art that reflects the agility needed in today's marketplace.

The product advertising, from Bozell, Southfield, Mich., that brings customers into the Star showroom is the same stuff that brings them into Jeep dealerships in Denver and Minneapolis. One fearless four-wheel-drive Grand Cherokee climbs a rocky mountain trail, and another one barrels sure-footedly across a bleak snowscape.

Only trouble is, there are no mountains to speak of in Mississippi and balmy Wiggins doesn't get much snow.

So why would anybody there waste money on a four-wheel-drive sport-utility?

"They don't," Mr. Lampley explains. "They don't want four-wheel-drives here; they buy the two-wheel-drive. But the national advertising image of the four-wheel-drive is what brings them into the showroom."

The art of the business, Mr. Lampley explains, is making sure Jeep keeps the rear-wheel-drive versions of the Cherokees coming to him, despite the overwhelming national demand for more four-wheel-drive factory production.

In broader terms, the art involves dealers and marketers refining a national advertising message by offering incentives to local markets, such as extra options packages or price reductions.

It's an art practiced by manufacturers of all types of autos. This art involves addressing the specific needs of consumer segments with appropriate marketing tactics and messages.

Nationally, two-wheel-drive models account for only about 10% of Grand Cherokee sales. But in those markets like southern Mississippi, where a four-wheel-drive is about as useful as a snowplow, the ratio of sales is about reversed.

Because customers there are buying versions that cost from $1,500 to $2,000 less than the versions featured in national advertising, retailers enjoy a niche opportunity to advertise price.

This year, Chrysler's desire to go after those "other" markets-mostly in the South and the Southwest-prompted the carmaker to offer a two-wheel-drive version of its ultra-luxurious Grand Cherokee Limited.

The two-wheel-drive Limited boasts a base price of $28,755, compared with the four-wheel-drive's $31,182 base. In 1994, 26,474 or the 208,351 Grand Cherokees sold, or 12.7%, were two-wheel-drive models, according to Chrysler.

Such regional buying nuances have dogged Subaru of America for years.

The Japanese carmaker first gained a foothold in this country in the 1970s with a reputation for four-wheel-drive products. The line did well in wintry New England and in snowy, steep-terrain Rocky Mountain markets like Denver.

But the company was frustrated over the last decade as it tried to develop a nationwide presence. Sunbelt customers largely passed on the pricey idea of compact sedans with off-road capabilities.

For a small importer like Subaru, which marketed just five car names last year, that's a problem.

Last year, Subaru tried an aggressive strategy to pitch its limited lineup to specific geographical markets.

Product planners and engineers created four special-edition versions of Subaru's flagship Legacy station wagon, aimed at four distinct regions:

The Sun Sport, in addition to being the sole front-wheel-drive-only model, had a sunroof and a bicycle roof rack to appeal to people in climates warm enough for cycling.

The Outdoor version included a bike rack, removable wheel covers for muddy or rocky off-road driving, and a rear cargo net, as if to reach customers prone to driving in rural areas.

The Alpine Sport boasted a roof ski rack, heated outside mirrors and an engine block plate to attract mountain skiers.

And a GT version came with a raised roof-a feature that might lure a customer away from the cargo-carrying sport-utility, and one that Subaru considered attractive to customers in the South.

Mary Treisbach, Subaru's director of marketing, says last year's gambit was a prelude for releasing the Legacy Outback wagon this year.

The Outback doesn't offer the geography-based options of last year's models. But Ms. Treisbach says it's still reaching buyers outside the snowbelt because of its general sport-utility feel.

The model includes a 12-volt plug in the rear for outdoor activity, and more rugged tires to create a truck-like flavor.

Unlike Chrysler, which will boost production on two-wheel-drive Cherokees to keep warm-weather retailers happy, Subaru is now trying to market an all-four-wheel-drive fleet.

Last year, 47% of Subaru's smaller Impreza sales were four-wheel-drive. This year it will reach 65%, and by 1996 100%, Ms. Treisbach says.

Legacy will be 90% four-wheel-drive this year and between 96% and 100% in 1996.

As Subaru pursues that strategy, it must reach its newer, more elusive markets from a different direction. It's currently considering adopting some of last year's special-edition tricks, but confining them to special accessory packages allowing retailers to deck out cars according to local tastes.

The company is also planning to solicit customers based not on where they live, but what they do for a living.

"If we can find a way to tie our products to people's occupation, we'll reach them wherever they live," Ms. Treis-bach reasons. "If we market to, say, nurses, and show them our safety features, the four-wheel-drive, and we demonstrate how they can get to work safely late at night, then we would reach nurses everywhere, in the Northeast or in Florida."

Meanwhile, Subaru continues to face its routine question of making its advertising, from Temerlin McClain, Dallas, work in conflicting regions.

"Some dealers say, `Give us more snow in the ads'," Ms. Treisbach says. "Others say, `Don't use so much snow.' It's a challenge to come up with one ad that accommodates both."

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