Small Stars Make Game Interesting

Kia Builds on Value Positioning With Strong Crash-Test Data, While Suzuki Plays Up Cycle Connection

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Two smaller players made noteworthy gains last year as Detroit suffered.

American Suzuki Motors Corp. and Kia Motors America parlayed better products, expanded lineups and catchy advertising into respectable sales increases in 2006, and Advertising Age recognizes them as the year's most-improved car companies.

Assessing the Automakers

When was the last time the auto business was this cutthroat? It's tough out there on the car lots, many of which are choked with acres of sheet metal. This Special Report is devoted to a group of experts' unvarnished appraisals of how six top carmakers are doing, along with a look at two up-and-comers.

Kia Suzuki

Although they did not receive grades, Advertising Age recognizes Kia and Suzuku as the year's most-improved car companies.

The competition:
GM
Chrysler
Toyota
Nissan
Ford
Honda



Suzuki reached a milestone last year, breaking the 100,000 annual sales mark by 990 units, a 23% boost in sales from 2005.

Motorcycle connection
Last fall, Suzuki Auto for the first time linked its ads from Dentsu's Colby & Partners, Brea, Calif., to the brand's better-known motorcycle heritage. The blitz included an espionage thriller on suzukiauto.com and other sites, and the work extended to Suzuki's first in-theater ad.

Wes Brown, partner at consultancy Iceology, applauds Suzuki for tapping into the positive motorcycle perceptions for its cars. Kia increased sales by 6.7% in 2006 to 294,302. Once sold only on price, Kia has improved its products and image by winning the government's top crash-worthiness ratings, says Doug Scott, senior VP of consultant GfK Automotive.

Kia's Sorento midsize SUV, Sportage SUV, Sedona minivan and Optima sedan all earned five-star crash-safety ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year.

Safety is a key part of the brand's strategy, says Len Hunt, exec VP-chief operating officer at Kia. "The top three reasons why people buy Kias are value, safety and [the 100,000-mile/10-year] warranty," he says.

Getting the word out
Mr. Hunt says one of his challenges is building awareness of Kia's bigger lineup of models, now 10 strong from just two in 1994. Davidandgoliath, Los Angeles, is Kia's agency. Kia doesn't do well in "big image markets" such as New York and California, so he's planning to hit shopping malls for more ride-and-drive events.

Todd Turner, president of Car Concepts, notes Kia is getting some good buzz. "Kia's marketing is working and bringing people into the showrooms," he says. "On just about every measure, Kia is doing well."

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Jeremy Anwel

Wes
Brown

Charlie Hughes

Doug
Scott

Art
Spinella

Todd Turner


Car mavens sharpen their pencils
The automakers' grades are based on individual assessments offered by automotive analysts Jeremy Anwyl, president of Edmunds.com; Wes Brown, partner at consultant Iceology; Charlie Hughes, president of Brand Rules; Doug Scott, senior VP at GfK Automotive; Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research; and Todd Turner, president of Car Concepts.

The grades refer to the automotive marketers' 2006 performance. The advertising/communications category includes the effectiveness of traditional, measured-media advertising as well as nontraditional marketing, with particular emphasis on the use of new media. Actual-sales grades are based on percentage change in 2006 vs. 2005, but they also take into account the particular challenges each carmaker faces.
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