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Carmakers seem to have a tough time figuring out if their advertising is working. Mostly it's not, but they have elaborate rationales for contending that their ads are beginning to turn the tide. Do they see something the rest of us don't?

I think it's pathetic that Cadillac has sold only 3,350 of the zippy new Catera model since October. But Cadillac marketers are optimistic because half of the sales came in January, "an indication that GM's first-year goal of finding 2,000 buyers a month is within reach," according to The New York Times. The Catera advertising is totally unlike any other Cadillac advertising. It uses a duck as a unifying symbol. Why I have no idea. And how does the duck and the Catera advertising in general affect how potential auto buyers perceive other Cadillac advertising? "It throws away nearly 100 years of prestige advertising and positioning," Michael P. Anastas of Focus Probe, told the Times. "It was almost as if it had been created by the competition to besmirch whatever image Cadillac has left."

In a way it was. Blame the highly vaunted brand management system. At GM, there is no overall product manager of Cadillac, just individual product managers for Cadillac models such as Seville, DeVille and Catera. So there is no overall Cadillac image these days, just positioning for the various Cadillac models, which may (and do) work at cross-purposes with each other. It's sort of like Procter & Gamble Co. not having a product manager for the overall Tide brand and, instead, having product managers for Ultra Tide, Tide With Bleach and other line extensions. That's the trap McDonald's has fallen into. It used to be that McDonald's would spend 25% of its ad budget on building the brand, but now it allocates spending to products such as the Arch Deluxe or french fries or the Quarter Pounder. Nowhere do we hear what the essence of McDonald's is all about.

In the same way, there is no essence of Cadillac anymore-just conflicting ads for the Cadillac nameplates.

Nissan has the opposite problem. All its advertising has been devoted to developing the mystique of the Nissan brand. Some of the Nissan spots are great, like the pigeons on combat patrol trying to catch up to a speeding Nissan before it gets to the garage, but the trouble is you don't know what's being advertised until you see a shot of that wild old man.

But although the ads haven't moved the sales needle, Nissan marketers acclaimed the campaign a big hit. The brand campaign has increased perception of Nissans as "fun to drive, sporty and a good value," but, cautions Doug Scott of researcher Allison-Fisher, "None of this translates into sales." What it will take, he said, is for the ads to create "enough attitude change to make Nissan a one-make preference."

Mr. Scott uses a "purchasing funnel" to show what factors influence car buying. On the top of the funnel is awareness, but that can be offset elsewhere in the funnel by the introduction of a competitive vehicle, such as the new Toyota Camry. So, according to Mr. Scott, "We'll see if Nissan's awareness characteristics stick and if they create a downward push on the purchasing funnel." Say what?

In other words-I think-Nissan is hoping its improved image will attract car buyers to its new Altima this fall. Cadillac, on the other hand, must be hoping that car buyers who like Catera won't reject it because they don't like Cadillac. And Cadillac has no brand advertising to change their minds.

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