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European importers aren't waiting for any full-blown auto sales slump to begin shaking up their marketing.

In the past month, BMW of North America and Volkswagen of America have hired new agencies, and Saab Cars USA began a major new image campaign designed to appeal to non-conformists who want to break away from the pack (AA, April 3).

Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz of North America and Volvo Cars of North America are in the midst of retooling their images.

Mercedes is trying to attract younger buyers with advertising from Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, that includes a commercial with a song by baby boomer icon Janis Joplin. And Volvo is trying to jazz up its conservative family car image with sporty new models and advertising from Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG that suggest German-like engineering combined with Swedish concern for safety.

One reason for all the activity is that Detroit automakers are producing better products aimed at import buyers, said John Bulcroft, president of the Advisory Group, a Cresskill, N.J., auto marketing consultancy.

And competition for all luxury brands, including the Europeans, is coming from sport-utility vehicles.

"Some people are deciding to buy an upscale Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer instead of a BMW 5-Series," Mr. Bulcroft said.

BMW and VW changed agencies despite sales upticks. BMW went to Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, in place of Mullen, Wenham, Mass., for creative on its $60 million auto account, and VW hired Arnold Fortuna Lawner & Cabot, Boston, to replace Berlin Cameron Doyle, New York, for its estimated $90 million U.S. and Canadian account.

In March, VW had its best U.S. sales in more than four years with 11,325 units, a 53.9% increase from March 1994. But Ben Hulsey, a Houston dealer who sat on the agency selection panel, said March sales were boosted by lease deals that were "too good to pass up."

Mr. Hulsey said VW has an attractive product lineup for the first time in several years. "What's missing is the marketing that puts these products on a customer's shopping list," he said.

BMW had its best first quarter ever, selling 20,816 units, a 12% increase from the same period a year ago.

Mr. Bulcroft said BMW's agency change reflected the aggressive management style of its German parent company. Other examples include the decision to become the first import luxury brand to build an assembly plant in the U.S., and the 1994 purchase of the U.K.'s Rover Group in which BMW beat out Rover's minority owner, Japan's Honda Motor Co.

"These guys don't think traditionally," Mr. Bulcroft said of BMW's management.

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