'Ferrets' of Car Industry Can't Quit Ad Tinkering

Automakers Struggle for Consistency in Marketing Messages

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DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- "We're like ADD ferrets on amphetamines." That was Paul Ballew's verdict on the car industry's tendency to constantly change ad messages.
Cadillac is one of the auto brands that has kept a consistent message -- having stayed with 'Break Through' since early 2002.
Cadillac is one of the auto brands that has kept a consistent message -- having stayed with 'Break Through' since early 2002.

The executive director of global market and industry analysis at General Motors Corp. slammed car marketers' compulsion to tinker at a direct marketing conference last week in Dearborn, Mich. He was making the point that the key to auto advertising is consistency of brand message -- and it's more critical than ever in today's fractured media environment where consumers are bombarded with marketing wherever they turn.

Perhaps Mr. Ballew shouldn't throw stones from his glass ferret cage, however, since several brands at the country's largest automaker, which spends some $2.7 billion a year, have shifted ad themes a number of times in recent years. However, to be fair, GM is far from the only industry offender.

GM's Buick brand has had five taglines since 2000. Saturn and Pontiac each have had four since 2001 and Saab has had three since then. The auto giant's Cadillac brand has stayed with "Break through" since early 2002 and Chevrolet has stuck with "American revolution" since 2003. GMC's "Professional grade" has been around since September 2000, and Hummer's "Like no other" has defined it since GM launched the brand in 2001.

Then again, BMW has been "The Ultimate Driving Machine" since the 1980s and survived four ad agencies.

"If people keep changing tags, they are searching for an identity because clearly they have none," said auto consultant Charlie Hughes, an industry veteran, who disagreed with Mr. Ballew that ad consistency is the main ingredient to a successful strategy. "It's not just consistency, because you could be saying the wrong thing consistently." Instead, he said, auto advertisers need messages that "mean something" and are linked to the brand.

"Every dollar you spend on communications ought to let the world know exactly what you stand for, and if you stand for nothing, every dollar you spend tells the world exactly that," Mr. Hughes said.

Mazda North American Operations has stood by "Zoom Zoom" since it was launched five years ago and adopted in other markets around the globe. Jim O'Sullivan, president-CEO of the Ford Motor Co.-controlled brand, said he has no intention of dropping the tagline since it "differentiates us from a lot of brands out there looking at our space." Created by Doner, Southfield, Mich., the message fits Mazda's fun-to-drive lineup, he added.

Steve Wilhite, VP-global marketing in Japan for Nissan Motor Co. and former VP-marketing of Nissan North America, said the ad world is littered with auto and non-auto brands that have dropped appropriate ad tags-an example of what he dubbed "brand-dead marketing."

"If you find a communication device that allows you to talk honestly about your brand, you should fight to keep it," Mr. Wilhite said. Nissan brand's tag, "Shift," was introduced in Europe in 2002 and soon adopted in the U.S. and Japan. Mr. Wilhite said it's an "honest representation of who we are and what we stand for as a company." TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, handles the brand in the U.S.

The argument is hardly academic, considering automakers spent a total of $9.8 billion in measured U.S. media last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

"With the amount of money spent on automotive advertising," asked Mr. Wilhite, "how do you expect to build any meaningful relationship with consumers if you are constantly changing the meaning of your communications?"
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