The changes have caused each of their respective agencies to restructure, in order to mirror their automotive clients, and have spurred shifts in media buying patterns to better target customers.
And as marketers that spent a combined $3.3 billion last year in media advertising, this development has huge ramifications for their agencies and the media sales representatives that call on them.
Eyeing growth in foreign markets, the Big Three are working on brand management globally-an area Ford Motor Co. pioneered.
General Motors Corp. arguably has made the most changes in the past year. Ronald Zarrella, group VP-North American Operations' sales service and marketing, has thrown down the gauntlet to divisions and their ad agencies for sharpened brand focus, improved advertising and more strategic media planning.
AVOIDING `MODEL-YEAR SYNDROME'
Since taking the helm in December 1994, Mr. Zarrella vowed to end at GM what he called the industry's "model-year syndrome," the tendency to spend big on a model's ad campaign one year but completely change the communications strategy the next year.
GM will support its leading vehicles with annual ad budgets of at least $30 million to maintain and build brand equity, he says. His logic: clearly differentiated brands don't need discounts or sales incentives.
Under GM's unique system, GM is a brand, as well as each of its divisions and each GM vehicle. GM bases its brand system on customer needs. Particular GM vehicles are only targeted to customers with certain needs.
Mr. Zarrella has promised an end to divisional product overlapping.
ADJECTIVES, NOT NAMEPLATES
At Ford Motor Co., Robert Rewey, Ford Automotive Operations group VP, is orchestrating a global brand strategy as Ford fine-tunes its year-old global system. Plans are to strengthen the brand personality of each nameplate.
Reflecting this goal, brand managers at the Ford Division are assigned to nameplates based on vehicle qualities, designated by adjectives like youthful, family and tough.
Ford Division has had major vehicle launches since last fall, when it introduced the newly designed 1996 Taurus in a blitz estimated at about $100 million. Then in January, the division launched its 1997 F-150 pickup during the Super Bowl with what it said was the most expensive truck campaign in its history. Total spending on the pickup in 1996 is estimated at $70 million.
REVIVE BRAND NAMES
Chrysler Corp., near death in the 1980s, has been grabbing market share in recent years. Chrysler claims it was the automotive brand leader, starting five years ago to totally revamp its product lineup.
Although the marketer carmaker then didn't dub the process with the word "brand," Chrysler has been trying to revive each of its brand names.
This year, it's shaken up its marketing staff. James Holden was named exec VP-sales & marketing in January. Since then, it's shuffled about 30 other top and mid-level executives and managers.
Chrysler's corporate image has improved. Customer perception of Chrysler's attractive styling improved by 20% between 1991 and 1996, Mr. Holden says.
"You can't do it with product alone. You can't do it without cohesive marketing and good dealer distribution," he says.
Although Chrysler's done more local event sponsorship and increased spot TV spending, national media are still in the mix. It made four pre-game Super Bowl spot buys in January, plus three during the game as part of the estimated $50 million Plymouth brand campaign and the launch of the estimated $45 million Plymouth Breeze.
Chrysler's market share rose during the first eight months of the year to nearly 16.5% from 14.8% a year ago-the only one of the Big Three to rise.
POWER IN THE FAR EAST
Yet power in auto marketing doesn't rest solely in Detroit.
Robert Thomas, the 51-year-old president of Nissan Motor Corp. USA, is putting the focus on the brands at his two divisions, Nissan and Infiniti.
Starting with Infiniti in June, Mr. Thomas cut prices, slashed incentives and stepped up image advertising. He eliminated most incentives, allowing Infiniti to reduce list prices by 5% to 10%.
What customers ended up paying wouldn't change much, but Mr. Thomas bet the emphasis would shift from heavy discounting that had tarnished the brand.
Coupled with price cuts, Mr. Thomas boosted Infiniti's ad budget by 50% to its highest level since the marque's 1989 launch. And he added new features to Infiniti's already strong customer service program.
Mr. Thomas concluded that he had to put the emphasis back on image for Infiniti to prosper as a prestige brand.
"It's gutsy," he says, "but it's the right thing to do."
Less than two months after making his move with Infiniti, Mr. Thomas made brand news with the Nissan division.
Mr. Thomas is the driving force behind a $200 million TV brand campaign to reestablish an image he felt got lost when the company changed its name in the early '80s from Datsun to the global Nissan.
Nissan is putting 100% of the division's TV money into a year-long brand effort in a calculated shift from product advertising, and Mr. Thomas is cutting promotion and rebate spending to help pay for the campaign.
He acknowledges the risk in emphasizing the Nissan brand in a market where product, price and promotion dominate advertising. But he contends Nissan had to define image to stand out in a market where consumers have access to an abundance of quality cars, well-defined brands like Saturn and new shopping alternatives like the Internet and used-car superstores.
"When we changed [from Datsun] .*.*. we lost all our heritage," Mr. Thomas says. "This is our way of getting our heritage back."