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RAMMING HEAD ON INTO OWNER LOYALTY FOR DODGE, BREAKING FORD-CHEVY CHOKEHOLD ON PICKUPS MEANS HEAVY EMPHASIS ON FEATURES

By Published on .

Chrysler Corp. executives thought they had a winner when they introduced their completely new Dodge Ram full-size pickup truck last fall. But they also realized it would be a tough sell.

In addition to promoting the new Ram's features, Chrysler faces the challenge of capturing consumers in a market notorious for brand loyalty.

The full-size pickup market historically has been dominated by U.S. manufacturers, with Ford Motor Co.'s F-Series truck and General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet C/K truck each claiming an estimated 40% of the market each.

Ads for the two marketers often focused on competing features and tugged at the emotional issues of owning one of their trucks.

Chrysler's previous Ram truck has held between 6% and 15% of the market between 1985 and 1993.

But with Chrysler's highly acclaimed new Ram, featuring a radically different exterior design and features such as more interior room and a business console, the car company has made clear that the market battle's not limited to the two players most pickup buyers are loyal to.

Chrysler's short-term goal is to double the Ram's market share within a year to 15%.

Some of that increased market share undoubtedly will have to come by attracting the competitors' buyers.

Truck owners are "very proud" of their vehicles, says Keith Helfrich, manager of Dodge truck merchandising. "If you put yourself in the mindset, it's a loyalty unrelated to the product. It is an emotional, pride thing."

So to sell its new Ram, Chrysler put aside the issue of loyalty and concentrated solely on the truck's features.

Chrysler has chosen traditional ad media to get its message across, including outdoor, network TV and print from BBDO Worldwide, Southfield, Mich.

"Maybe previously we would have tried to evoke emotion" in Ram advertising, Mr. Helfrich says. "But we were very clinical this year. We chose to shoot in a studio with messages about the features."

Although Chrysler executives declined to say how much is being spent on the campaign, Detroit media reps put the amount around $20 million, far below what's being spent on 1994 Winter Olympic advertising and on the introduction of the new Neon. The plans include no dealer incentives at this time.

Chrysler also ran infomercials on various cable channels and sent videotapes to about 500,000 owners nationwide of competing trucks.

The Ram's marketing campaign also involves some other not-so-conventional approaches.

Since last fall, Chrysler has set up booths at nearly 20 trade shows that attract construction workers. Often, the marque was the only car company at the show.

Interested people are then invited outside the show for a 30-minute test drive in what Mr. Helfrich describes as a "low-pressure environment."

Chrysler selected this option not just to win construction company sales but also to turn these buyers into word-of-mouth advertisers.

"When we talked to recreational owners, we found that they would go to work-truck owners to find out what they'd look for in a truck because they figured they would know about trucks," Mr. Helfrich says.

The Ram's marketing plan also incorporates dealer activities that started six months before last fall's release of the truck.

The dealer program, dubbed "Ram Quest," featured product education and a three-month period of ride and drive training, often duplicating road conditions their customers might experience.

This pre-release program created publicity about the trucks and drove potential customers into showrooms.

At Little Rock Dodge in Little Rock, Ark., interested consumers started asking about the Ram some eight months before its release, says dealership owner Butch Martindill.

"We sold the sizzle even before they got us the steaks," Mr. Martindill says about the pre-release dealer education.

Jack Cline, new truck manager for Hickey Dodge in Oklahoma City, says his Ram truck business has been "like having a whole new franchise. Everyone is asking about the Ram."

While Chrysler says orders are as high as they anticipated for the first few months of the year, dealers are saying they can't keep Rams in stock. Mr. Martindill says demand is so high he could sell 100 Rams a month, if he had the supply.

But whether Ford or Chevy will lose market share to the Ram remains to be seen.

David Cole, director of the University of Michigan Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, thinks the new Ram will gain market share but possibly without affecting the sales volume of Ford and Chevy trucks.

Unit sales of full-size pickup truck grew 19.5% last year, according to market researcher J.D. Power & Associates.

Kurt Ritter, marketing manager of Chevrolet trucks, also says the full-size truck has "probably exceeded everybody's forecast." And he attributes it, in part, to the new Dodge Ram.

"A new competitor coming into the segment-the Dodge Ram-has stirred things up," he says.

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