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Seamless campaign: National ads focus on how the Intrepid was designed; regional ads showcase the car. The unified message (list) KEY TO STRONG BRAND IMAGE: UNIFIED MARKETING STRATEGY. CARMAKERS TRIM AGENCY ROSTERS, CONSOLIDATE DEALERSHIPS TO BUILD IDENTITY

By Published on .

Many automakers, seeking a unified brand message, have consolidated their dealer groups and reduced the number of advertising agencies they use.

The trend mirrors the thoughts of automotive brand managers and marketing executives, who see similar advertising from manufacturers and their dealerships as a key to establishing a brand identity.

In a survey conducted by A.T. Kearney Inc. for Automotive News and Advertising Age, 32% of automotive brand managers and agency marketing executives said a unified message is an extremely important step toward establishing a powerful brand identity.

There is evidence that suggests a cohesive brand message that boosts sales depends on the philosophy of the carmaker. That must be correctly communicated to its dealers and to consumers in an advertising campaign.

For example, Nissan Motor Corp. USA poured about $300 million into a brand campaign with the tagline, "Life is a journey. Enjoy the ride."

Dealers complained that there was not enough focus on the products. The auto marketer responded by creating regional, product-based, TV commercials that mirrored the national campaign.

SALES DOWN 27.5%

But it was not enough. After 18 months, Nissan's sales were down 27.5% for January and February.

While Nissan continues to use the tagline, most of the company's top managers have recently left or retired. Advertising is now focused on products.

By comparison, Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge Division took a no-nonsense approach to rebuilding its brand identity and the results are measurable.

From the end of 1992 through 1997, according to the Automotive News Data Center, Dodge's sales climbed 47.5% to 1,234,509. Its market share increased from 6.5% to 8.1% during those five years. And Dodge says its owner retention rate has doubled to 50%.

AGENCY RELATIONSHIP HELPS

BBDO Worldwide, Southfield, Mich., has been the advertising agency for Dodge and its 38 dealer ad associations since the 1960s. So what happened between the trio that has led to a strong brand identity and increased sales?

BBDO's philosophy changed, Dodge started making products that people considered buying and Dodge's dealers became convinced that brand building was in their best interest.

When Dick Johnson arrived at BBDO in 1991, as chief creative officer, he halted the use of car-on-road film footage in TV ads.

"One more car going down one more wet road is not going to move any needles," says Mr. Johnson, now also president. "I don't want any people in [Dodge] advertising and I don't want running footage."

Then, BBDO came up with the title card, "We're changing everything," for the 1992 launch of the Dodge Intrepid.

The phrase acknowledges what consumers already knew. Everything about Dodge needed to be changed.

When the 1993 Dodge Ram pickup was launched, Mr. Johnson dumped the traditional truck advertising featuring the "work" shot of an owner using the truck and a "play" showing its leisure uses. He also eliminated scenes featuring a mother chauffeuring her kids for the launch of the 1995 Dodge Caravan minivan.

CREATING SOLID REASONS TO BUY

The changes were also implemented in Dodge's dealer association advertising. In short, Mr. Johnson forced his creative people to drop images and create reasons for consumers to shop Dodge.

And BBDO convinced Dodge and its dealer associations to let actor Ed Hermann pitch some Dodge products on camera and off camera and do all of the voice- overs for Dodge's national and dealer association commercials.

Mr. Hermann provides a consistent message in the same voice.

The result? The division created a brand identity and message that, with the launch of the Intrepid, says its products are bold, powerful and capable.

DEALERS LEND SUPPORT

"Just putting something on sale doesn't go far enough," says Dodge General Manager Ray Fisher. "Putting something on sale that someone wants, that is the answer."

As Chrysler's new platform team approach to running the business spread throughout the company in the early '90s, Dodge's marketing division started treating its dealer advertising associations as peers, not pawns to be pushed around.

"Nine years ago, they told us what to do and we resented it," says a member of Dodge's dealer executive committee for advertising who did not want to be named. "They shouted at us and we shouted at them. It was like that in the whole industry."

Now, "We're all on the same page, sending the same message," says Pat Fitzgibbon, principal of South Holland, Ill., Dodge.

But the key to just about every facet of Dodge's ascent is when Dodge's dealer ad associations agreed to run national ads for the launch of the Intrepid in 1992.

"It would have been unthinkable just months before," says Mr. Johnson.

LOCAL-LEVEL BRAND BUILDING

The idea has evolved to the point where, according to Mr. Fisher, Dodge's dealer ad associations spend an average of 10% of their budgets to run national brand-building commercials.

Mr. Fisher meets quarterly with the dealer associations' executive committee to map out marketing strategy.

"Since we share the same agency, we're talking about the same things," Mr. Fisher says. "It's easier to do when you have the same people working on national and dealer association advertising at both Dodge and BBDO."

This alliance is not a love fest. But the strategy sessions take place between people with open minds, who want the best for Dodge.

CALMING DEALERS' FEARS

But there is "pain whenever we go to something new, because there is some fear," says another member of the executive committee.

For instance, Dodge's national ad campaign for the all new 1998 Intrepid concerned dealers because it focuses on the computer technology used to design the car. Dealers were concerned consumers might not respond.

"But after getting the facts from Dodge and BBDO," says the committee member, "we came together and we accepted the plan. There is pain with that because you're afraid."

Dodge's dealer ad associations have been running national commercials for the launch of the 1998 Intrepid since January.

As awareness builds, they have begun to run product-based regional spots, which supplement the process-based national spots.

Those ads are seamless.

"When dealer ads look a little bit like the factory and factory ads look a little bit like dealer," says Mr. Johnson, "you're just that far ahead of the game in terms of awareness with the consumer."

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