Boomers on the Drawing Board

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In 1955, Chrysler needed an icon. It had no Corvette, no Thunderbird for young crew-cuts in blue jeans to drool over. That was the year the company found its muscle car: the C-300. Touted as "America's most powerful car," the 300 tore up the tracks at NASCAR and Daytona, positioning Chrysler as a leader in high-performance, upscale American automobiles. The company launched a new model in its "letter-car" series every year until the 300L in 1965, and then discontinued the line.

In 1995, 40 years later, Chrysler needed an icon again. It had no Lexus ES300, no BMW 3 series for male baby boomers in Dockers to covet. And with nearly half a million cars sold annually in the "near luxury" segment, the field was already crowded, and dominated by imports. The Big Three American car companies, meanwhile, were selling luxury models like the Chrysler Le Baron and the Buick Park Avenue to the boomers' parents, a much smaller chunk of the market. How could Chrysler capture the attention of the fortysomething consumer?

"Bringing a car to market is a $1 billion to $4 billion investment," says Steven Bruyn, large-car marketing executive at Chrysler. "As a result, you like to be right." The company didn't have to go far for its concept: It resurrected the 300 letter series from the '50s and '60s, and simply picked up where it left off in the alphabet. After three years of development, engineering tinkering, and intense market research, the car maker finally launched the 300M last March, and sales of the model are gaining momentum. According to the Automotive News Data Center, Chrysler sold 4,475 300Ms in August alone-more than one-third of its total sales since the car's debut. The 300M commanded a 10.8 percent share of the near-luxury market that month, placing third behind the Volvo 70 series and the Lexus ES 300.

Status vs. identity Steering the 300M from drafting table to dealership has been no easy task. At the start of the project, Bruyn and his team studied the potential of the near-luxury car market by looking at population trends and forecasts for its target customers. America's baby boomers were aging, well-educated, and their personal income was growing, courtesy of a strong national economy. They wanted room and comfort for their expanding waistlines-and were willing to pay for it.

Factors like these indicated a robust future for near-luxury car sales, but how did the 300M fit into the picture? Through focus groups and product clinics, Chrysler honed its profile of the car's typical driver. "To 300M drivers, the car is more than just something to get them from point A to point B," says Bruyn, who will discuss Chrysler's marketing process at this month's Best Practices in Marketing Management Congress in San Diego, sponsored by the American Marketing Association. "They read Motor Trend and other auto magazines. They're real car enthusiasts." And, says Paul Leinberger, senior vice president at Roper Starch Worldwide, they're looking for a product that represents who they are. "It's not about status, but their sense of identity," he says. "There are many competent cars today, but in the '50s and '60s, we drove cars we loved. Americans want to invoke the best of the past and combine it with the best of the future. Chrysler is one product that does that."

America's nostalgic mood swing also influenced the design of the 300M, inside and out. The egg-crate grille harks back to earlier styles in the letter series, and simple analog dials dot the dashboard. (See "The Past is Back in Cars," October 1998, page 37.) Chrysler restored its vintage silver-winged badge to the hood, which now appears on all of the brand's cars and trucks. Of course, not everything about the 300M recalls the 1950s-standard features include leather seats, climate control, and a stereo system with nine speakers. Prices start at $29,500 and top out at about $32,000, in line with other cars in the near-luxury market.

Chrysler also focused on the history of the letter-car series to position the 300M in the field. "We marketed the 300M with an 'American heritage' wrapper," Bruyn says. "It differentiated us from the others in the market." Commercials feature 1955 film footage from the Chrysler archives, showing the 300C cruising the company's test tracks and Bob Rodger, chief engineer for the series, talking about the car's power. The tagline: "Chrysler. Engineered to be great cars." According to Competitive Media Reporting, the Chrysler auto division spent $130.6 million on advertising through June 1998, $13.5 million of that on the 300M. Chrysler Corp.'s total ad spending for the same six-month period was $632.3 million.

But in the car business, even when sales are strong, there's no time to sit on the bumper. Bruyn is already studying what people will want in 2003. The early industry buzz: "personal luxury cars"-'90s jargon for two-seater sports cars. "Once the kids are gone, boomers are going to trade in their SUVs and indulge in a two-seater," says Roper's Leinberger. The BMW Z3 and the Porsche Boxster are two early entries in the market; J.D. Power and Associates expects the number of convertible and roadster models to reach 38 in five years. Is a 300 convertible on Chrysler's drawing board? Only time will tell.

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