SUV sellers pin hopes on new hires

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Two sport-utility marketers suffering sales declines have hired new top marketing executives.

Jon Williams, 33, last week joined Land Rover of North America as VP-marketing from parent Ford Motor Co., where he was North American truck and SUV strategy manager for the Ford brand. Rick Balsiger joins American Isuzu Motors as VP-marketing from Mazda North American Operations. He had been brand marketing director.

Mr. Willams succeeds Jim Selwa, who left in January. Mr. Balsiger follows Gary Tucker, who resigned last week.

Land Rover and Isuzu vehicle sales in the first two months of 2001 slid by 35% and 24%, respectively, vs. the same period a year ago. Both have limited ad budgets. In the first 11 months of 2000, Land Rover spent $38 million and Isuzu shelled out $32 million, according to Competitive Media Reporting. Land Rover is handled by Omnicom Group's GSD&M, Austin, Texas, while Omnicom's Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, handles Isuzu.

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Mr. Williams said Land Rover will kick off a test-drive initiative this week for its Discovery model, backed by a media buy on cable TV and in newspapers. The British native said he plans to build on Land Rover's customer relationship management.

Duke Hale, senior VP-chief operating officer of Isuzu since last fall, said the company's marketing budget will jump by $45 million to $125 million this year from 2000. He's phasing out sponsorships this year of what he called the "too narrowly focused" Ironman Triathlon and Eco-Challenge. Isuzu is studying other events "that would be broader and more grassroots to give us a wider audience and work with our dealers," he said.

George Peterson, president of consultancy AutoPacific, said although the two SUV marketers target different groups, both have aging products at a time competitors are offering fresh, new models. He predicted both will improve sales with the launches of Isuzu's all-new Axiom SUV next month and Land Rover's new Freelander SUV later this year.

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