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BRAND IN TROUBLE: AMERICAN SUZUKI SKIDS AS RIVALS' VEHICLES IMPROVE

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American suzuki Motor Corp. isn't having a banner year. Sales of its small cars and mini-sport-utility vehicles are sliding, and its minuscule ad budget barely makes a dent in the competitive auto market.

Suzuki sold 24,625 vehicles in the first 10 months of 1997, down 22% from a year earlier, says Automotive News. Sales of the mini-SUV Sidekick, Suzuki's best seller, fell from 12,214 in the first 10 months of '96 to 5,466 this year. Suzuki's U.S. sales peaked in 1987 at 83,334.

The problem? Suzuki's Sidekick is "outclassed" by recent entries from American Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Sales USA, said Bob Schnorbus, director of automotive analysis at J.D. Power & Associates, Southfield, Mich. And Suzuki's X-90 has a limited market because it's only a two-seater.

Also, Suzuki still is fighting image problems stemming from its legal battle with Consumers Union, said David Kalmus, auto consultant with marketing researcher Questar.

Consumers Union's Consumer Reports nearly a decade ago published a report stating that Suzuki's Samurai had a tendency to roll over.

"This rollover controversy absolutely killed" Suzuki, Mr. Kalmus said.

This year, the U.S. District judge in Orange County, Calif., in Suzuki's 1996 federal suit against Consumers Union, tossed out all but one of the marketer's 15 charges. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decided in September 1996 not to order a Samurai recall.

IN A 'TRANSITION PERIOD'

Lore McKenna, national ad and public relations manager, described the car marketer as being in a "transition period." She blamed the sales decline on such factors as Sidekick's 10-year-old design, a more competitive market and Suzuki's low brand recognition.

The last problem may be attributable to a lack of ad presence. Suzuki spent just $62,000 in measured media in the first half of the year, according to Competitive Media Reporting; for full-year 1996, it spent just $12,000. Asher/Gould, Los Angeles, handles.

Ms. McKenna disputed CMR's figures, but wouldn't discuss details of the carmaker's ad spending.

Suzuki has ambitious goals, targeting U.S. unit sales of 100,000 by 2001. It expects to do that through new products, increased marketing spending and by

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