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This is not your father's Mack truck.

The bulldog is back, he's sporting shades and racing stripes, and he's helping drive sales of Mack trucks in a segment of the market in which the company, until recently, was not considered a significant competitive factor.

By the company's own admission, Mack truck sales were in the dumps in the late '80s. French automaker Renault V.I. bought Mack Trucks in 1990; and then-Chairman, President and CEO Elios Pascual began an assessment of the company's competitive situation.

Mack also realized it needed some marketing muscle. Impressed by the work Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis, did to help rejuvenate sales of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, Mack knocked on the agency's door in 1992 hoping it would work the same magic with Mack's approximately $5 million marketing budget.

For the January-through-May period, Mack jumped to third place with an 11.9% share of the Class 8 or heavy-duty truck segment, up from sixth place and 10.9%, according to figures from the Automobile Manufacturers Association and tracked by Heavy Duty Trucking. Mack trails leaders Freightliner Corp. (25.1%) and Navistar International Transportation Corp. (18.8%).

The rise in market share shows "our message is getting through, that we've changed our product and we've been able to create in the mind of the buyer the perception that we are a different company," said Brian Taylor, Mack VP-marketing. "Built like a Mack truck" served us well in our core business, but it did not have a good connotation in the over-the-road highway segment. And that was a perception we had to work hard to change."

Sales of vocational vehicles-cement mixers, construction trucks, garbage trucks and the like-form the core of Mack's business. The largest portion (70%) of the category, however, is highway or over-the-road hauling vehicles; it's also the part of the market that's growing.

Between 1989 and 1991, Mack introduced two lines, the CH and the CL series, designed for the over-the-road fleet segment. A new sleeper cab, the Millennium Sleeper, rolled out this year.

"We developed a product line that had good ergonomics. It was roomy and it had a smooth ride, but we faced a challenge with communicating those changes to our customers," Mr. Taylor said.

Focus groups conducted by Carmichael and its public relations arm, Carmichael Lynch Spong, confirmed Mack's suspicions. Mack still stood for high-quality, strength and durability, but fleet operators and drivers thought the trucks lacked the comfort needed for long-haul trips.

"They had the product, but the drivers and fleet buyers weren't prepared to believe that Mack did," said Jack Supple, president-executive creative director at Carmichael. "We had to create a campaign-an impression-in which customers would be willing to suspend their disbelief that Mack was more than they knew."

Although some consideration was given to putting the Mack bulldog out to pasture, Carmichael believed the icon should be central in new advertising. A modern bulldog could prompt customers to ask, "What's got into Mack all of a sudden?" Mr. Supple said.

The round of six print ads in 1993, themed "Drive one and you'll know," introduced the new Mack with the bulldog in hot rod flame stripes, wearing shades and seeming to sip from a champagne glass filled with diesel fuel.

The intentionally attention-grabbing ads ran in highway, fleet and construction industry publications, including Owner-Operator, Heavy Duty Trucking and Overdrive.

Once the print campaign laid the groundwork, the company swung into action with the Bulldog National Test Drive Tour in 1993, in which new trucks were shown at 70-plus North American locations. The 1994 tour generated more than 1,200 test drives and directly contributed to the sale of 1,166 Class 8 Mack truck sales in 1994, said Doug Spong, president of Carmichael Lynch Spong.

Other aspects of the integrated campaign included a Fleet Focus program, through which materials were mailed to nearly 1,200 non-Mack fleet customers, and providing Mack dealers with qualified lead cards from a toll-free number in print ads, test drives and ad response calls.

Mack's recent successes have not gone unnoticed. Freightliner announced in July it would make a bigger push into Mack's territory, with new products aimed at the vocational market. Navistar this summer launched its own version of the test drive tour.

Still, industry observers said not only is the bulldog back, but he's a formidable competitor.

"Mack has good, aggressive marketing and they've gained good market position," said Jim Winsor, executive editor, Heavy Duty Trucking. "The company has gone through a complete metamorphosis; they've really gotten their act together."

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