BRAND IN DEMAND - Chrysler top gun: Cruiser

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The Chrysler PT Cruiser has been hot since the vehicle went on sale last spring.

"We are completely sold out for the 2001 model year," said Tom Marinelli, VP of the Chrysler-Jeep Global Brand Center. That's despite the fact that DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group has produced 180,000 PT Cruisers this model year. "So far, what's sold the car is its emotional value. People just have to have it."

That must-have mentality derives mainly from a killer design for the retro-looking car, but also can be traced to some smart marketing on Chrysler's part, including an aggressive introductory price and an early start on marketing. The formula has worked well enough that demand isn't just strong in the U.S. For the 2002 model year, starting this fall, Chrysler will produce 240,000 PT Cruisers in total, and "We're looking as if we need more than that," Mr. Marinelli said.

Chrysler isn't doing much advertising this year, due to the demand. Only $733,000 in measured media was spent in January 2001, compared with $34 million in calendar 2000, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. Chrysler spent $370 per PT Crusier sold last year.

Many of the key staff who worked on the Chrysler brand for the PT Cruiser's launch last year at True North Communications' FCB Worldwide, Southfield, Mich., moved to Omnicom Group's PentaMark Worldwide, Troy, Mich. PentaMark won the account in a shootout with Omnicom last fall.

The car debuted with the sticker price of $16,000, with launch commercials touting its versatility and space. (PT stands for "personal transportation.") But as the car trickled into showrooms, dealers were charging as much as $4,000 above sticker. Chrysler has been able to raise the base price three times; it now has a base price of $16,900.

Chrysler started beating the drums early. It began collecting names via responses to auto show brochures in early 1999. During the car's 16-month prelaunch, more than 225,000 prospects contacted Chrysler for more information. Chrysler brand ads that fall also offered a peek at the car.

As time goes on, the PT Cruiser is also extending its appeal to younger car buyers. The average age of PT Cruiser buyers is 52, Mr. Marinelli said, but the average age of those intending to buy the car is about 42.

Art Spinella, a VP at CNW Marketing Research, the puts the current median age of buyers at 36, with 70% of those replacing other vehicles with the PT Cruiser.

Buyer demographics have broadened, too. Early buyers were 88% male and had household incomes of roughly $79,000, Mr. Spinella said. Now, PT Cruiser buyers are 62% male with household incomes of just over $57,000. With fresh prospects still flocking in, Mr. Spinella predicts Chrysler can keep up the car's sizzling sales. "The key to this thing is you keep getting into a larger and larger pool of customers."

Chrysler shows no signs of letting up on the momentum, either. The automaker showed a convertible PT Cruiser at the New York auto show in April, which may go on sale in 2003. "The strategy," explained Mr. Marinelli, "is to keep the car hot and do derivatives like the convertible."

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