SUVs shrink as their numbers grow

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Three auto marketers are readying ad campaigns for their sport utility vehicles as the category continues to expand with new entries. Consider this: There are now 54 SUV models. That will jump to over 80 models in 2003, according to Doug Scott, SUV marketing manager at Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Division.

At least 13 new or updated models bowed since fall, including the small Ford Escape and Toyota Motor Sales USA's Toyota midsize Highlander. At least 10 more new or freshened SUVs are coming this year, among them Chrysler Group's small Jeep Liberty and the first SUV from General Motors Corp.'s Saturn, the small Vue. Ford Division, Ford's Mercury brand and General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac division all launch ad campaigns this month for midsize SUVs.

"New product alone stimulates demand in the segment," said Jim Mateyka, a VP in the auto practice of consultancy A.T. Kearney. The small SUV category is growing fastest and some weakness is appearing among large SUVs. "The segment overall is looking like it's getting more mature, but there's still room for innovative new products."

Ford defends its role as the nation's best-selling SUV as it launches its 2002 Explorer with 15-second TV teaser spots April 5. WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit, also created a 30-second version debuting during prime time on national network and cable TV. Ford is expected to spend an estimated $40 million advertising Explorer this year. The SUV's base price is $24,620.

Ed Molchany, brand manager of Explorer, expects current Explorer owners to account for at least half the sales this year. To those who still have Explorers from as far back as the early 1990s, Ford will send a direct-mail piece by JWT. They'll also be invited to one of the seven "No Boundaries Experience" test-drive events this year.

Mr. Scott isn't concerned about last year's Firestone tires recall hurting new Explorer sales. He said 85 % to 90% of owners in all the focus groups and phone interviews said they'd buy another Explorer without Firestones. And to attract prospects, a series of four sweepstakes arrives in June, done in tandem with various magazines.

Ford's 2002 Mercury Mountaineer gets roughly half the brand's media budget this year, or an estimated $55 million. The SUV's positioning is "urban sophistication" in the brand's first work from John Doyle, executive creative director at WPP's Y&R Advertising, Irvine, Calif. The six spots, breaking on network TV April 16, and print ads show the SUV in a montage of everyday urban settings with the tag "The SUV built for here Is here."

The '02 Cadillac Escalade gets about half the brand's media budget this year, or some $80 million. A 60-second spot from BCom3 Group's D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Troy, Mich., bows April 7 on CBS and shows the SUV evading traffic cones that morph into missiles.

"We tried to get an emotional appeal of what it's like to drive this vehicle," said Martin Macdonald, group creative director. The execution is "about what's missing from luxury SUV advertising, which takes itself a little too seriously."

Mike O'Malley, general marketing manager of Cadillac, said the Escalade "is the forerunner of a series of vehicles that will broaden Cadillac's appeal to a new generation of luxury customers."

To reach younger buyers, Cadillac is trying billboards directing prospects to a "fake" radio station of vignettes transmitted from the boards. The brand also will launch a DVD game sweepstakes and is advertising on the wireless Online Airline Guide. Motor Trend magazine is overseeing Cadillac's ride-and-drive tour to 16 cities.

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