PLYMOUTH DRIVES COMEBACK TRAIL;NEON LIT THE WAY-NOW, NEW ADS AND AUTOS KEEP TURNAROUND GOING

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Chrysler Corp.'s Plymouth brand, near death just some 18 months ago, appears to be on the road to recovery.

Plymouth, once Chrysler's best-selling brand, started spiffing up its stodgy model lineup a couple of years ago. Its 1994 launch of the Neon set the tone for the brand's new fun-and-affordable image, enhanced by ads from Bozell, Southfield, Mich.

Advertising is only part of the brand's planned revival strategy, said Steve Bruyn, national marketing plans manager for Plymouth.

`AFFORDABILITY AND FUN'

Plymouth's plan is "to take a new vehicle, use the shopping process and wrap it in the brand character of affordability and fun and carry it across the full model line," Mr. Bruyn said.

Last year, Plymouth introduced the redesigned 1996 Voyager minivan with a $55 million marketing blitz. It also brought back its original sailing-ship logo, dropped in the 1950s.

At the start of 1996, the big marketing push began. That's when Plymouth broke an estimated $50 million brand-image campaign with the tagline, "One clever idea after another. That's Plymouth."

That was shored up by the all-new Breeze compact sedan, backed by an estimated $45 million introductory marketing push.

SALES UP 6.8%

The result: Plymouth sales rose to 175,200 in the first half of this year, up 6.8% compared to a year ago. That progress is more impressive considering Plymouth's unit sales skidded by 28.7% last year, down to nearly 292,000.

"Advertising has certainly been a big part of it," said Jerry Golinvaux, a Minnesota dealer and last year's chairman of the Chrysler-Plymouth Dealer Council. Brand "awareness is up and Plymouth sales are on a real rebound. We don't have a dead product in the whole line."

Plymouth spent a mere $17.6 million on the brand in 1994, said Competitive Media Reporting, It spent $28 million in the first quarter of '96.

BREEZE SELLING BRISKLY

The Voyager minivan still is the brand's best-selling model, accounting for about half of annual unit sales. Mr. Golinvaux said the Breeze is selling briskly; nearly 35,000 were sold through June.

And new products like the Breeze attract new customers, Mr. Bruyn noted.

In the first quarter of 1997, the slick, limited-production Prowler roadster will be added as a "halo" model for the brand, as the Viper is for sister marque Dodge.

The "new" Plymouth has targeted a higher percentage of women than men, Mr. Bruyn said. To meet that goal, the brand opened Plymouth Place-interactive kiosks in shopping malls where consumers can get information on prices and options for Plymouth and its competitors. Plymouth Place kiosks are now in 121 malls in 59 cities.

"We find Plymouth Place fulfills the basic need for a safe haven to shop the car," Mr. Bruyn said.

MORE SHOWINGS

The brand also significantly increased product exposure and plans to show models at some 500 events this year, up from about 24 last year.

"We want to get Plymouth out to places where the target [audience] is," Mr. Bruyn said.

The brand now is aimed at younger, entry-level buyers, with women accounting for between 60% and 70% of overall unit sales.

Plymouth's two early-buyer Breeze studies found the average buyer was 42 years old and 55% to 65% of purchasers were women. The average buyer of the defunct Plymouth Acclaim compact sedan was 55 to 60, Mr. Bruyn said.

Auto analyst Mary Ann Keller said the Breeze has a lot to do with Plymouth's revival, which "still has a long way to go."

long-term investment

"Chrysler is very, very good at understanding how to communicate to the market they're targeting," said Ms. Keller, manager and research director of Furman-Selz, an investment banker-brokerage. "They understand marketing beyond traditional advertising. Plymouth Place is not something that's meant to turn into instant sales. This is a longer-term investment in marketing the brand than a $2,000 rebate."

A couple of years ago, auto expert David Kalmus said that "Plymouth was on the way out. There was no reason for its being."

But Plymouth is salvageable because "it's such an old name brand and it doesn't have anything negative tied to it," said Mr. Kalmus, VP-business development of Dohring Co., an auto-market research consultancy.

ON THE ROAD BACK

Mr. Kalmus said Plymouth is on the road back.

"It's marketing," he said of the brand rebuilding effort. "There's nothing unique in the product yet. Things are going in the right direction. Maybe it's not all visible now; ultimately it will pay off. I think it's going to work."

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