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American Isuzu is spending some heavy dough to impress on U.S. car buyers that it's not a car company, but a truck and sport-utility specialist. And the company says the strategy is paying off.

"Basically, we're saying, 'Life is too big for cars,' " says Mark Darling, vice president of sport-utility marketing at American Isuzu. "We feel we're putting a real stake in the ground with our campaign: No cars, no excuses."

In fact, Isuzu's no-car strategy has been in place since 1994, but this is the first time it has touted its "specialist" strategy to the public.

Backed by a 50 percent jump in ad spending last year, American Isuzu's "Go Farther" campaign has vaulted the company into the top 10 automotive spenders in the U.S. market for the first time. Isuzu spent $137 million last year, according to Compe-titive Media Reporting, up from $91 million during 1997. Isuzu says it plans to spend at about the same level in 1999.

Seeing results

So far, Isuzu's strategy seems to be paying off. Last year its U.S. sales were up 11.3 percent over 1997, reversing two years of decline fed by a 1996 evaluation by Consumer Reports contending the Isuzu Trooper sport-utility rolled over too easily.

New products are helping drive the company's turnaround. Last year Isuzu introduced a redesigned version of its most popular sport-utility, the Rodeo, and a new two-door sport-utility, the Amigo. This year's major new-model introduction is the VehiCross, a "high-performance" sport-utility; its entire first-year production of 3,000 units was sold out to dealers before its March 10 introduction. The vehicle has a suggested retail price of $29,800.

"They're beginning to reach their owners, first and foremost, so they're winding up with improved loyalty and fewer owners defecting to cars," says Douglas Scott, president of Allison-Fisher Inc., a Southfield, Mich., automotive marketing and research firm.

But walking away from the car market has its perils. "They need to be talking to their current owners about how to get more Isuzus into the garage," Scott cautions. "For a company without any cars to offer, that task is huge."

Isuzu's Darling sees it differently. "With the globalization of the marketplace, it's difficult for any manufacturer to do everything and do it all well," he says. "Isuzu determined our core competencies and determined that it was trucks."

See a specialist

So, in spots that began on ESPN last November, Isuzu's message is unmistakable: It only does sport-utilities and trucks - and those are the only vehicles the truly enlightened would drive anyway.

In one ad, a car and a Trooper are going over a bridge. A child in the back of the car can't see anything because a guard rail blocks his view. Meanwhile, the kid in the back of the Trooper can see all the action from his higher perch, including the space shuttle as it flies by headed for a landing.

The best media mix for impressing its brand identity on the American public, Isuzu believes, is a balance of everything. Included in Isuzu's mix is substantial print advertising in magazines, cable-TV spots and "a very big initiative" on the Internet, Darling says. It also includes a much greater role in spot TV in key markets, which provides flexibility.

Isuzu also is more heavily funding athletic competitions and other events that express the brand's new extroverted personality. That includes endurance competitions such as the Ironman triathalon in Hawaii and the Tour de France bicycle race.

Such events might prove to be Isuzu's most cost-effective way to approach some niche markets with which its vehicles seem to match up well, such as military personnel and Hispanics, Darling says.

The company has taken care to appeal to its dealers. Last year it launched a new partnership program with groups of dealers in some metro markets in which Isuzu helps coordinate a new regional approach to advertising to support brand consistency. A new Internet program links dealer sites to Isuzu's site and feeds price quotes to them.

"The focus is definitely right," says Bob Scena, owner of Showcase Isuzu in Bourne, Mass. Scena says unit sales were up 35 percent last year. He expects more of the same this year, boasting 14 deposits of $1,000 each from customers who want the new VehiCross. "Everybody's pumped about the product line and the advertising," he adds.

That's music to Isuzu's ears. As long as U.S. consumers don't lose their appetite for pickups and sport-utilities, its new strategy could continue to pay

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