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The u.s. auto industry, faced with a relatively flat sales climate, is using nontraditional media to build relationships with owners, not to mention wooing new buyers and building brand awareness.

Nontraditional media are more than a recent lure often used to retain core buyers-those who "plan" auto purchases entering the year (a declining number)-and have earned stripes over time to become part of the overall marketing plan.


The real change at General Motors Corp. is that unmeasured advertising has become much more strategic and integrated into total marketing packages, says Phil Guarascio, VP-general manager of marketing and advertising for GM's North American Operations.

Unmeasured spending includes nontraditional media, sales promotion and direct response, and has been increasing at a faster rate than standard media, notes Mr. Guarascio, 56.

Although he's not specific about this rate of growth, media growth at GM was a dramatic 14% in 1996 over '95. GM, in fact, was the nation's largest spender in '96, forking out $1.74 million in measured media, according to Competitive Media Reporting.


This year, the company formed GM EventWorks, the first auto company unit dedicated to event and entertainment activities; became the first marketer to sign a 12-year, sponsorship-marketing deal with the U.S. Olympic Committee and NBC-TV worth an estimated $900 million ($300 million for marketing); and entered a multiyear partnering deal with Walt Disney Co. worth an estimated $100 million.

"We're learning to follow our customers," Mr. Guarascio explains, noting they more frequently aren't home using traditional media. "Media spending programs are not up to the reality of the new world of marketing where the customer is much more in control."


Chrysler Motor Corp., noted for its grassroots support of owners of Chrysler vehicles, this year expanded regional Dodge Viper gatherings for Viper owners to a national event featuring a private Beach Boys' concert. It extended last year's test program for Chrysler-Plymouth minivan owners and their families at one Six Flags theme park to six this fall.

Consumers don't want to buy from a cold, dispassionate company, believes James Holden, 46, exec VP-sales and marketing. "They [the gatherings] are very effective at driving loyalty," he says, by "putting us closer to our customers. We come back here after three days with a group of owners chock full of product suggestions."

Ford Motor Co.'s reach into nontraditional media areas is largely driven by the evolution in relationship marketing brought on by technological improvements in data collection and manipulation, says Robert Rewey, group VP-marketing and sales.


After Ford realized earlier this year how popular country singer Alan Jackson was as a regional spokesperson, it offered dealers Jackson-Ford merchandise featuring his ad song "Crazy 'Bout A Ford Truck."

This year, Ford agreed to assist the nonprofit Ford Mustang enthusiasts' group that wants to build a Mustang Museum, and is once again a sponsor of Rolling Stone's Rock & Roll Bowl music-trivia competition touring college campuses (two Escort ZX2 cars are going to the highest-scoring, two-person team).

"Better data give us the capability to focus on specific groups in the marketplace," says Mr. Rewey, 59. Ford's consumer information database is tied to all its dealerships and consumers who visit either the dealers' or Ford's Websites.

"We use it to get customer input on a variety of timely issues, like suggestions on categories of vehicles," he says.

Toyota Motor Sales USA is in the midst of a six-week, childrens' reading promotion for its Sienna minivan with Borders Inc. and Parenting as part of its drive to increase participation in education-related activities, says Dave Pelliccioni, 49, corporate marketing manager of Toyota, overseeing Toyota and Lexus brands.


Toyota, which spends about 5% of its total ad budget in nontraditional areas, according to Mr. Pelliccioni, is seeking to determine the best nonmedia means of reaching its nearly 12 million owners.

"There's so many outlets of information available to the consumer, we have to go out and create these alliances," he says.

American Honda Motor Co. is delighted with its sponsorship of Little League Baseball, the first major automaker to do so. The deal provided good exposure for its Odyssey minivan, says Eric Conn, 52, senior manager of national advertising for Honda and Acura. Honda will beef up its participation in the sport next year and have more local dealer tie-ins.


Nissan Motor Corp. USA's nontraditional media spending, about 5% of its ad budget, primarily uses local promotions to build awareness and to generate free publicity, says Tom Orbe, 46, the VP-marketing for Nissan recently named general manager of Infiniti.

To introduce its new Altima sedan this year, Nissan offered the car as a prize to the person who could live in the car the longest. The quirky promotion took place in Atlanta, with four volunteers (including a disc jockey) vying for longevity rights in full public view. The DJ's presence gave Nissan a lot of bonus radio mileage, plus coverage from other media.

Nissan allocates more event dollars to its Infiniti brand because luxury car owners "are looking for that uniqueness and special treatment from you," Mr. Orbe says. The carmaker rented a New York theater in late summer for its owners for the Broadway play "Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde."

"It's costly, so it limits the extent the manufacturers can do it," he says. "But, we find it worth our while."

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