Car sales accelerate

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Despite a sluggish economy, October will be a banner sales month for leading automakers, experts predict. Most car marketers are pushing ahead with advertising and marketing planned before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Driving October sales: the aggressive, zero-financing incentives offered after the attacks by General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group, Toyota Motor Sales USA, American Suzuki Motor Corp. and Daewoo Motor America. GM, the first to announce zero financing, could see its market share jump by three or more points over the previous month when it announces October sales this week, predicted Jim Sanfilippo, exec VP of consultancy AMCI. "GM is like a bulldozer changing the landscape."

The incentives are costly to the carmakers; they also attract sales that may have come in later months without the discounts.

There are some signs of weakness in the market. Total luxury car and sport utility sales in the U.S. fell 5% through September 2001 vs. a year ago, said consultancy Jacobs & Associates.

"There are some signs in the economy of a fall-off across the various [luxury] segments," said Dave Schembri, VP-advertising at DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz USA. Before Sept. 11, the brand "was well on its way to a record year," he said. "We're still hopefully on track to have another great year. We'll either meet or exceed last year." The marketer hasn't beefed up incentives.

Mercedes, with flat year-to-year sales through September, kicks off an estimated $40 million national branding campaign Oct. 31. The fourth-quarter multimedia push, from Omnicom Group's Merkley Newman Harty, New York, marks the end of the brand's 100-year anniversary. One of three TV spots dubbed "Timeline" highlights brand accomplishments from 1900 using "Danke Schoen" as background music. Meanwhile, Toyota is in the midst of launching its redone Camry. Steve Sturm, VP-marketing, said its 2002 model, which has no incentives, is in short supply. "We're seeing huge traffic" at dealerships. He said business has picked up since a drop post Sept. 11. Toyota's interest-free models are the Tundra, 4Runner and Corolla. The incentives end Dec. 3.

Toyota started an online, prelaunch promotion Oct. 11 for its Matrix sport wagon, due in February. Visitors to two Toyota Web sites ( or can create a music video for the youth-targeted vehicle and enter it in a contest to win the Matrix.

Mark Bilfield, director of integrated marketing at Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi, Torrance, Calif., said 6,500 people have given their names and addresses and dabbled with the software from Oddcast, New York. Of those, 1,700 entered their videos in the contest's first 10 days. He projected Toyota will meet its goal of gathering more than 50,000 prospects. The contest ends Jan. 23.

Ford Division's Focus small-car models offer the no-interest incentive. Bob Fesmire, brand manager of Focus, said his line's October sales are going to be ahead of last year. "October is shaping up to be a really good month for us."

Mr. Fesmire was reached from California last Thursday, where he was kicking off a seven-market college campus tour for the all-new ZX5 hatchback model. The two-day Focus festivals include road rallies in the cars, career discussions with a panel of celebrities and sponsorship of a concert by the band Live. "This tour was well in the planning stages" before the attacks, he said. Clear Channel Communications created the tour for Ford and is advertising it locally on its radio stations.

He said he didn't have any research to show whether consumers in today's economy are looking for value models like Focus.

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