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Alittle more than a year ago, executives at General Motors Corp.'s GMC Truck division were settling down for yet another of those long and sometimes-boring research presentations.

But what they heard that day jarred them.

They learned, for example, that the African-American population is growing twice as fast as the Caucasian population and that African-Americans buy up to 10% of the new vehicles purchased each year.

Most disturbing, the executives learned GMC's share of African-American buyers was smaller than its competition's.

"Once we took a look at the facts and realized all this, we knew we needed to target the market," says Eddie Messenger, head of diversity marketing efforts for the GM truck division.

Shortly after, the division hired Wimbley Group, Rolling Meadows, Ill., to handle advertising to the African-American market and got the ball rolling to capture a bigger share of the segment.

While GMC began its efforts, a similar scenario was being played across boardrooms in the Motor City and at some import-car makers. Staff meetings centered on how to market vehicles effectively to blacks.

Many U.S. carmakers are hitting on the same strategy: using messages that reflect black lifestyles.

African-Americans, like much of the rest of the general population, had been taken for granted by auto marketers. But the old car company philosophy of "we produce the cars and the public will buy them" hurt their hold on the African-American population more than just about any other group.

Once loyal U.S.-made car buyers, African-Americans had quietly pledged their allegiance to Japanese autos.

About 75% of all vehicles purchased by African-Americans in 1983 were U.S. car brands, says Don Coleman, president-CEO of agency Don Coleman & Associates, Bingham Hills, Mich. By 1993, that number had dropped to 49%.

`That hurt," says Mr. Coleman, whose agency handles African-American advertising for all of the Chrysler brands. "There are certain categories where we're always on the leading edge -fashion, music. The Japanese [car marketers] had the new design for those times. There was better quality then. It was an easy defection."

(A current government investigation may hint at another explanation for this shift. The Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department are looking at possible discrimination by the Big 3's finance units against minorities, through higher interest rates.)

Mr. Coleman says with quality and style now being equal, there's no reason why U.S. manufacturers can't win back those buyers. The key, he claims, is the message.

"There's an adage in our business: `Blacks are not dark-skinned white people'," Mr. Coleman comments. So, he says, it's imperative to have a specific plan to reach African-Americans.

He suggests integrated advertising that features blacks depicted in the lifestyles in which they really exist.

"African-Americans know when they're honestly being spoken to," he says.

In addition, since African-Americans may have smaller homes, he says: "Their car has to say a lot more about them."

Besides using traditional media, Mr. Coleman says it's important to reach the group in other ways. He has pushed for Chrysler to get involved in such events as the touring Black Expo USA last summer and a Jeep-sponsored health & fitness tour at black U.S. colleges.

Christine MacKenzie, manager of corporate advertising at Chrysler Corp., acknowledges that Chrysler has put more emphasis in the last year in targeting African-Americans.

"Everyone has recognized that mass marketing will not work," she says.

She supports Mr. Coleman's theory of using more than just advertising, pointing to a VIP test drive for African-Americans last year.

The participation rate in the African-American test drive was 15%, versus 8% in the general market. In addition, a greater fraction of African-American participants said they'd consider buying the car-78% to 63% for the general market.

Similarly, GMC Truck has chosen a "totally integrated marketing program" that includes TV, print and an infomercial featuring Roy Roberts, general manager of the division (and one of the auto industry's highest-ranking black executives), discussing the benefits of the 1995 Jimmy.

In the six-minute video mailed to upscale blacks in select markets, Mr. Roberts also offers anyone who takes a test drive to make a contribution to either the United Negro College Fund or the Thurgood Marshall Fund.

Mr. Messenger describes it as a test campaign that ran in selected areas of the country from November through February. The division is considering expanding the program.

Charles Wimbley Sr., owner of Wimbley Group, oversees the test campaign, called "Coming on Strong."

Echoing many of the same sentiments as Messrs. Coleman and Messenger, Mr. Wimbley says it's important to show how "the auto fits into an African-American lifestyle."

In one ad, for instance, an African-American family is shown driving to a family homecoming event in its new Jimmy. The voice-over talks about how things haven't always been easy, but the time has come to treat "you and your family" well.

At Ford Motor Co., New York-based UniWorld Group has the assignment of marketing to African-Americans for both the Ford and Lincoln-Mercury divisions.

Although Gerry Donnelly, national advertising manager for Ford division, won't release budget figures, he says that more of its advertising budget-about a 15% increase in 1995-is being targeted at the black market.

Ford has responded to a belief that it has a wide range of vehicles to appeal to different levels of African-American incomes, from the entry-level Escort to the more upscale Explorer sports utility vehicle and Windstar minivan.

Ford, like many other companies, is targeting the group with messages and the depiction of lifestyles that appeal to them.

UniWorld's TV spots for the Lincoln-Mercury Mark VIII and Continental, for example, show African-Americans enjoying trips to the country or spa.

The agency's spot for the Mercury Mystique, meanwhile, shows professional African-Americans who have their own reasons for liking a car "designed by engineers around the world."

The imports obviously aren't blind to the buying power of the African-American market. Although they have enjoyed the allegiance of the minority group over the last few years, they know loyalty can easily swing back to U.S. manufacturers.

American Honda Motor Corp., for one, hired Muse Cordero Chen, Los Angeles, to develop the African-American market a full six years ago. It began, however, with community building rather than immediate advertising, starting with its "Honda Campus All-Star Challenge."

"We wanted to earn the right to be in the community," says Eric Conn, senior manager of automobile advertising for the Honda and Acura brands.

It hasn't been until recently that Honda has focused on product.M

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