Soft top, hard sell

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Volkswagen's beetle convertible was the most popular model among women buyers last year and rival BMW is happy for it to stay that way, even as it launches its own soft-top next week.

On the face of it, marketing the new Mini Convertible looks a cakewalk. Mini's reintroduction to the U.S. is a success story that still has momentum and enthusiasts were ordering the Convertible even before images of the new model were available. But BMW still faces some serious challenges: It has to overcome a slide in demand for convertibles and must avoid a trap other convertibles have fallen into-appealing so strongly to women that male buyers start to shun the car as being a ladies' ride.

Kerri Martin, marketing communications manager of the Mini Cooper division, admitted the launch ads skew male-one outdoor execution compares the car to a "Crotch Rocket"-but denied the automaker is worried about the gender mix of buyers for the 2005 top-down model.

The men and women in Mini's target "share common interests," she said. Those qualities include a love of travel, creative hobbies, technological savvy, plus an appreciation for quality and style. "We're launching the convertible with the same tone and spirit we launched the brand."

Nevertheless, some experts said Mini will have to market carefully here. "If men see a lot of women driving a sports car, then it can't be a sports car and they abandon it," said Todd Turner, president of consultancy CarConcepts. "It's sexism 101. Men are particularly afraid to be associated with a chick car."

Mr. Turner cited the case of Mazda North American Operation's Miata sports car, which got more male buyers when it first blazed onto the scene with a manual-only transmission. But more women bought the affordable two-seat roadster when Mazda offered an automatic about eight months later.

demo `insignificant'

Volkswagen of America's Beetle convertible was the most popular model among women last year compared to more than 200 other brands, according to Strategic Vision, and some executives said this might have made it harder for VW to sell the marque, even the hardtop version, to men.

But Ms. Martin was insistent: "Demographics are insignificant because Mini appeals to a huge cross section. We have people from 16 to 60 coming in for test drives." The current owner base is 62% male, 38% female, with annual household incomes ranging from $50,000 to $125,000. The gender split on hand-raisers wanting more information about the convertible is almost identical at 61% male to 39% female, so Ms. Martin anticipates the same kind of broad appeal and roughly the same male-female split for the new model.

Another challenge for Ms. Martin is that there are fewer people intending to buy convertibles and incentives have risen. The pool of consumers who say they intend to buy a convertible car or truck with removable tops slid 16% from the end of 2002 to the end of June 2004, said consultant Art Spinella, VP of CNW Marketing/Research. Incentives on ragtops are higher than the industry average: $4,372 as of June 30 vs. $3,716 respectively. At the same time, the average age of convertible buyers has risen every year since at least 2000, when it was 46, to 52 in June of 2004.

Mr. Spinella also said while 62% of Mini buyers are male, his research shows only 51% are its primary driver, since many men buy for their wives or daughters. The average age of Mini buyers in February 2004 was 44 years old vs. 39 the same time the prior year. But Mr. Spinella said the ragtop model will lower the average Mini age.

Cold-weather markets could also pose a challenge for Mini Cooper's momentum since the launch runs from late summer into December.

keep the top down

Ms. Martin said the Mini Convertible's "Always Open" ad theme and tag addresses that issue, encouraging drivers to keep the top down no matter what Mother Nature throws at them. However, the thrust of that theme is to defy conventions in the category. "We reject the tenets of the category and wanted to be more in the spirit of freedom associated with other open air vehicles like motorcycles." An outdoor execution compares the car to small motorcycles with the headline "The Four Crotch Rocket."

One national magazine ad from Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami, spoofs a contract for owners to sign vowing to drive with the top down most of the time. Consumers will also get a copy of that "convertible contract" when they buy the car. An "Encyclopedia of Open Motoring," a pullout insert, explains tongue-in-cheek the history of driving with the top down. An outdoor spectacular with moving neon lighting gives the illusion of the top going down.

The automaker is using more conventional media than it did for the return of the British marque to the U.S. when the hardtop Mini Cooper went on sale in March 2002. Mini's awareness rose from 7% at its March 2002 launch to 71% today, which is one reason Ms. Martin doesn't feel the need for buzz marketing. For the first time since its U.S. re-entry, the advertiser will use radio, only spot since Mini is sold in 49 markets. Crispin Porter created five radio spots. The narrator, a male with a British accent, compares the benefits of things opened vs. closed, including a man's zipper. The agency created a trio of TV spots-only for dealers to use locally if they choose. Mini spent $4 million in measured media through May 2004 and $23 million in calendar 2003, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

More than 60% of hardtop Minis are custom-ordered, not bought off the lot, so buyers wait an average of three months for delivery. Mini is expanding its "Make Waiting Fun" program for buyers, with both online and offline communications. Buyers will get a mug that fits in the car's cupholder when they purchase the convertible.

Mini's marketing is "enlightening," said Charlie Hughes, president of BrandRules and former president-CEO of Mazda North America. "Here's a company that designed a car that's very sought after and people are waiting three months to get." It also has universal appeal. "It's absolutely classless and sexless. It's not designed for men or women."

Tactics

Mini Launch March 2003

1. Mini driven around cities atop large SUV

2. Minis remodeled to look like kiddie rides at malls

3. Pass-along magazine ads including decals

4. In-cinema and Internet commercials

5. Minis parked in removed stadium seats

Mini Convertible Sept. 2004

1. Pass-along magazine ads

2. Local radio

3. Spectacular neon Billboard

4. TV ads for individual dealers

5. Expanded "Make Waiting Fun" buyers' program

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