'Hi' Road To Success Chrysler's Neon Shines With Help From Debut Ads

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When Stacey Shurtz's softball teammates asked about her new car, she knew just how to describe it.

"Ya know, Neon, the car that says, `Hi,"' said Ms. Shurtz, a 24-year-old athletic department activities coordinator at Oakland Community College in Auburn Hills, Mich.

The incident illustrates how Chrysler Corp.'s Neon advertising, featuring a whimsical "Hi" that appears over the car, has caught the fancy of its target demographic made up of college-educated, under-30 buyers.

The black Plymouth Neon that Ms. Shurtz leases is one of 112,833 units that Chrysler has sold or leased this year, and carmaker can't build them fast enough to meet demand.

Eight months after the debut campaign from BBDO Worldwide, Southfield, Mich., broke on the Super Bowl, Neon is approaching cult status. When they pass on the road, Neon owners often wave or flash their cars' signature oval headlights at each other.

It's a car that's also being noticed by competitors.

In describing the new Sunfire, John Middlebrook, VP-general manager of General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac division, said the Sunfire would probably say "Yo" if it were to issue a greeting.

Kia Motors recently put up an outdoor board in Los Angeles for the new Kia that read, "Say `bye' to Neon." Goldberg Moser O'Neill, San Francisco, created the board.

And engineers at Japan's Toyota Motor Corp. recently tore apart a Neon to do a thorough assessment, according to Automotive News. The critique was said to be the most comprehensive one done at Toyota City since engineers working on the first Lexus model disassembled Mercedes-Benz models in the 1980s.

The internal Toyota report found fault with Neon's quality and fit-and-finish, but offered praise on the way Chrysler had designed methods to hold down costs.

"The Neon certainly is getting a lot of attention," said A.C. "Bud" Liebler, Chrysler VP-marketing and communications. "The Japanese are looking at the Neon as the first serious challenge to their dominance in small cars."

Tom Webber, sales manager for Harry Lane Chrysler/Plymouth in Knoxville, Tenn., said he's seeing a lot of Toyotas and Hondas, and even some Saturns, coming in as trade-ins for Neons.

Neon's rollout has benefited from strong industry sales for small cars. Buyers of subcompacts and compacts are often the most affected by general economic upturns and recessions.

While Neon reached its high-water mark of 19,883 units in August, sales exploded at General Motors Corp.'s Saturn, reaching 31,814 units, a 92% gain from the same month a year before. Sales also were strong for Ford Motor Co.'s Escort, Toyota's Corolla and Nissan Motor Corp. USA's Sentra.

Mr. Webber gave major credit to the ad campaign, saying: "Many customers refer to the famous `Hi.'*"

A marketing executive at one Chrysler rival grudgingly acknowledged that the Neon campaign, an estimated $80 million send-off, was a major success. "The ad awareness numbers on the Neon are off the chart," the official said.

Clearly, one reason Neon recognition rocketed is that Chrysler decided on a single model name to be shared by the Dodge and Plymouth brands, then put all its marketing money into a unified campaign. In effect, Neon became the brand.

Although Chrysler was targeting so-called Generation X, BBDO calculatedly fashioned a campaign that avoided stereotypical portrayals of young adults. Instead, it focused on communicating product benefits while developing a huggable personality for the car.

For the 1995 model year, the marketing efforts are being split. BBDO will continue to create ads for Dodge Neon; Bozell, Southfield, has taken over Plymouth Neon.

"Dealer association money is going to drive most of the advertising, so we're giving each brand its own campaign," Mr. Liebler said. However, both campaigns will continue to use the "Hi."

"The advertising will be absolutely in the same style," Mr. Liebler said, "with the same sense of humor."

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