2008 Chevy Malibu vs. Honda Accord

Optimedia's Antony Young Road-Tests Media Strategies to See Which Got the Most Mileage Out of Their Campaigns

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Antony Young
Antony Young
There hasn't been a lot of good news for the auto industry in 2008. The effects of declining consumer credit, rising gas prices and a negative outlook for the economy have all taken their toll on car manufacturers' sales and earnings. However, one sector to emerge relatively unscathed is the midsize car segment. Two success stories in this sector were the 2008 model launches of the Chevy Malibu and Honda Accord.

Automotive is arguably one of the most competitive categories in the advertising business, and this is especially true in the midsize segment, where some 40 different nameplates compete for market share. Branding is seen as crucial, but success is measured by sales-volume performance. Apologies for the analogy, but that's where the rubber hits the road.

Malibu and Accord had Toyota Camry, America's highest-selling car, in their sights. The No. 2-selling Accord, a car with a tremendous and consistent reputation in this segment, really wanted to challenge Camry for that No. 1 position. The Chevy Malibu was a critical launch for parent company General Motors. The model had mediocre sales in past years, but had since undergone significant upgrades. So its success was strategically important to re-establishing Chevy's reputation in cars.

First-half sales in 2008 for Malibu were up 46% vs. 2007. This year, Honda Accord's sales are up 13%, but they sold more than twice as many cars as the Malibu, which also helped to narrow the gap on the Camry.

Clearly, you need to produce an excellent product, earn positive reviews and have a strong dealer network to close the sale. But marketing and media played a strong hand in assisting these results. Let's rate how they did.
5 stars Outstanding/Innovative
4 stars Highly effective
3 stars Good
2 stars Disappointing
1 star Disaster
Overall Communications Strategy
Malibu: 4 stars
Accord: 4 stars

The Malibu had a difficult challenge. For years, critics charged that the Malibu was an inferior car compared to the Camry or Accord. As a result, Malibu's perception among consumers lagged. For this car to succeed, Chevy felt it needed to de-bunk that perception and it embarked on a strategy to, in itswords, "disrupt the consumer." Chevy needed to do that before establishing the new model's credentials. The solution was a three-phase campaign. Phase one: a teaser campaign titled "Can't Ignore." Phase two: an endorsement campaign of quotes from independent reviewers. Phase three: a series of proof points around the tagline "Built to last, built to love." I wonder why, with so many media dollars spent "fixing" the current image, they didn't consider just re-branding Malibu to a different name?
Honda ad

The Honda campaign's theme of going 'Beyond the Road' sought to communicate the long-established emotional tie drivers have with Accords while celebrating its new personality and style to the influential Gen X audience.

If the Malibu delivered a very rational, product-focused messaging campaign, then Honda took a decidedly different route, focusing less on the car and more on the brand and the buyer's lifestyle. Since the 1980s, the Accord has built its market share by targeting baby boomers, but this year they decided to broaden its appeal to a younger target. Honda wanted the new Accord to be the choice of Gen X. The campaign's theme of going "Beyond the Road" sought to communicate the long-established emotional tie drivers have with Accords while celebrating its new personality and style to the influential Gen X audience. According to TNS Media Intelligence, over the 10 months between September 2007 to June 2008, Chevy Malibu spent close to $250 million in media, while Honda spent a little les than $200 million on the Accord.

Pre-launch Reveal and Buzz
Malibu: 4 stars
Accord: 2.5 stars

The auto shows are the car industry's equivalent of the Fashion Week catwalks -- they play an important role in talking with the press and building buzz among influential car enthusiasts. The Detroit Auto Show continues to be the most important date on the calendar, and Chevy made an all-out effort to launch the Malibu at the January 2007 event. Bobbie Thomas, host of the Style Network's "Fashion Police" TV show, helped to make the point that the 2008 Malibu had received a complete makeover. Ed Peper, general manager of Chevrolet, sold the new Malibu hard, claiming it had Lexus-like qualities and $40,000 of features in a car half that price tag. This certainly got a lot of press hype early on for the Malibu, some of which Chevy used in their subsequent advertising.

Meanwhile, Honda, which was launching the eighth generation of an already successful nameplate, chose not to reveal its new model at the Detroit show, but instead presented a concept design for the Honda Accord Coupe. They didn't get as much attention as the Malibu, but they did plant in the minds of the reporters that design for the 2008 Accord was something they were going to emphasize.

TV Launch
Malibu: 3 stars
Accord: 4 stars

Both models bought large-scale TV schedules to support their launches. Accord kicked off on Sept. 10, timed to coincide with the strong ratings that normally accompany the new fall TV season. Three 30-second spots, with music from the Electric Light Orchestra track "Hold on Tight" and voiced by Kevin Spacey, premiered in the first regular-season game of ESPN's "Monday Night Football" and followed in the season premieres of "Grey's Anatomy" and "NCIS." Accord also brokered a partnership with NBC to broadcast a series of offbeat vignettes featuring the Accord and promoting new prime-time shows including "Bionic Woman," "Chuck," "Journeyman," "Life" and "My Name is Earl."
2008 Chevy Malibu Jogging Ad
Malibu kicked off its TV campaign with "Can't Ignore" tease ads Oct. 17, followed by scheduling 30-second spots and additional 15-second spots in the same break to help cut through ad clutter. There was heavy scheduling around Major League Baseball's regular season and the World Series. Malibu put 58% of its budget on TV (primarily network TV), while Accord placed 85% of its budget in TV (36% in network and more than 40% in spot TV supporting key local marketing). Accord ran separate media and creative targeting the Chinese and Korean markets.

Online Marketing
Malibu: 4 stars
Accord: 2.5 stars

Malibu spent more than four times Accord's online budget. On Oct. 17, it showed a lot of enterprise executing the biggest online "takeover" by a marketer. The automaker bought a massive campaign of boxes and embedded interactive ads on the home pages of Yahoo, MSN and AOL, which extended across 50 high-traffic sites that included Weather.com, Amazon, Oprah.com and The New York Times, as well as key automotive sites. The plan also included a "roadblock" of the major search engines. GM estimated that it delivered some 960 million impressions and reached nearly 90% of all U.S. online users that day. In addition to driving awareness, this media pushed potential buyers into higher involvement and sales lead opportunities -- the campaign recorded 3.7 million interactions with the content and 317,000 web users clicked onto mini-sites for dealer information, price quotes or tours of Malibu's interior and exterior.

Accord ran rich-media roadblocks on the home pages of key sites. It also ran many online videos, which included pre-rolls on TiVo's ABC new-season promo footage, custom co-branded content on MTV Network including vintage video, movies and music popular among the Gen Xers, and partnered with video–on-demand sites such as Joost, YouTube, AOL and MSN to further reach this target audience.

Malibu: 4 stars
Accord: 3 stars

Consistent with its strategy, Accord focused very much on publications that targeted Gen Xers. These included BusinessWeek, GQ, InStyle and Vanity Fair. It also sponsored Entertainment Weekly's Entertainer of the Year awards, which honor the magazine's favorite stars from the past year.
Honda Vanity Fair ad

Honda's Accord ads focused on publications that target Gen Xers, like this ad that ran in Vanity Fair.

With women representing half of Malibu's retail sales, Chevy utilized an integrated partnership with Conde Nast and nine of its female-targeted titles. Other than advertising pages, it incorporated a nice ten-city mall tour showcasing the hottest fashion trends and a "Malibutique" shopping experience to help present the car specifically to women. Malibu ran some hard-hitting press with headlines such as "We're tired of being a foreign car in our own country".

Malibu: 2 stars
Accord: 4 stars

The Malibu website seemed disconnected from the advertising. On the home page, it didn't look like the campaign that was running. For example, the "hero" shot of the car didn't resemble any of the shots from print or TV ads. The website did, however, convey a lot of information -- price, fuel economy, safety and its JD Power award on quality -- a lot for people to take in. It contained the usual build-a-car option, find-a-dealer-location tool and an option to compare models' facilities. The best feature was the virtual tour, which was very high-tech but took nearly a minute on my connection to download (which might be a reflection of my internet service, but is still too long). The one annoying aspect was that if I clicked some of the tools, I found it very difficult to get myself back to the Malibu navigation page.

By comparison, Honda's site had similar features, but it was more stylishly presented -- not too dissimilar a parallel to the cars themselves. One easy fix for Honda was when I Googled "2008 Honda Accord," the paid sponsored link bought me to the general Honda U.S. website front page, which took me three clicks to get to the Honda Accord section of the site.

Overall Performance
Malibu: 4.5 stars
Accord: 3.5 stars

Antony Young is president of Optimedia US, a Publicis Groupe company headquartered in New York.
Both campaigns performed exceptionally well in incredibly difficult marketing conditions. But on balance I give the Malibu campaign a higher rating. Its 2008 sales were well ahead of projections and up significantly vs. 2007, albeit flattered by a run out of the model in 2007. What impressed me was how Malibu increased the average selling price by $4,000, as well as gaining a much higher proportion of sales at retail rather than through fleet channels. Its media campaign drove significant traffic to its website and dealerships and, more important, it managed to shift consumer perceptions to put the Malibu on buyers' consideration lists. The campaign helped to improve Malibu's perception quality (+11 points), brand consideration (+7 points) and aspiration to own (+10 points).

Little can be taken away from the Accord marketing and media strategy. It not only sold more cars, but more additional cars than Malibu and at a higher price. Its marketing was more efficient, very much off the base of well-established brand equity and incorporated a very stylistic and integrated campaign with strong local media support. Notably, they gained share against market leader Toyota Camry that was flat year-on-year in the same period.
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