Heritage tough sell in global arena

By Published on .

Rock icon Bob Seger can look forward to a happy retirement based on the strength of one song, courtesy of American icon Chevrolet.

If you're Jaguar, you don't throw 85 years of British history out the window just because you're now owned by the U.S.' No. 2 car company. Nor can you take history for granted if you're Chevrolet, Land Rover, BMW or other iconic automotive brands.

Regardless of which parts a Chevy shares in common with other auto marques, Chevrolet among all the domestics seems to recognize most clearly that it has what import challengers don't: an American heritage, in this case spanning 93 years.

Chevrolet liberally sprinkles around its heritage through Americana themes in its marketing. Even in the 1950s, the General Motors Corp. unit urged Americans to "See the USA in a Chevrolet." Then in the 1990s, Chevrolet bought the rights to Mr. Seger's emblematic "Like a Rock" to tout its truck line. Chevrolet is spending megabucks to keep its red, white and blue heritage flying.

As part of a 10-car product blitz, Chevrolet's current theme line of "An American Revolution" anchored its presence in the 2004 Super Bowl and Summer Olympics. The $100 million-plus campaign from longtime Chevy shop Campbell-Ewald, a Warren, Mich.-based agency of Interpublic Group of Cos., signaled big changes ahead at the GM division with a barrage of new products, while preserving Chevrolet's history.

"With 10 new cars and trucks being introduced over a period of 20 months, there's no better place than the Super Bowl to make a bold statement that something big is happening at Chevrolet," Brent Dewar, GM North America VP-marketing and advertising, says about the campaign.

Kim Kosak, general director of advertising and sales promotion for Chevrolet, says, "The Chevrolet brand enjoys a special relationship with American consumers. The brand is referenced in hundreds of American contemporary songs and is embedded in American culture. For more than 50 years, this shared DNA has been reflected in our ad campaigns."

But does Americana or heritage sell vehicles in an era of globalization, intense competition and "domestic" cars often built from foreign-made parts? Apparently so: Chevrolet is consistently one of GM's most successful divisions, selling more than half of the total GM volume. Chevrolet sold 2,763,238 vehicles last year, up 4% over 2003, at a time when GM is faltering.


Jaguar, though now owned by Ford Motor Co., remains U.K.-based but says it doesn't consciously play on its British heritage in its U.S. marketing. Jaguar, however, does have a healthy regard for its heritage and remains true to its roots. All four Jaguar models have been built in the U.K. since the 1920s.

"We make no overtly conscious tie [in ads] to our British heritage, although our customers are very aware we are a famous British car manufacturer," says James Thomas, communications director at Jaguar North America, adding that Jaguar "buyers care very much for the company's illustrious heritage."

That heritage hasn't prevented Jaguar from stumbling in the U.S. market; last month the carmaker moved its ad account to Havas' Euro RSCG, New York from WPP Group's Y&R, Irvine, Calif. This year, Jaguar had used a carefully constructed media mix, relying less on TV and more on print, online, one-to-one and other media channels, Mr. Thomas says.

While Jaguar might downplay its British-ness, another Ford Motor brand, Land Rover, drives the middle of the road in marketing its heritage.

"So Jag might be more like Americans see themselves, while Land Rover is maintaining a sophisticated image of what Americans aspire to be," observes Mark Bunger, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "And the Germans are proud of their German heritage, even to a fault."

Mr. Bunger reminds: Who can forget Volkswagen's "Fahrvergn?gen" campaign in the 1990s that touted VW engineering and taught people a little German, to boot?

Rover debuted in the U.S. in 1986. Built in the U.K., the vehicles are positioned as refined but with exceptional offroad performance.

The automaker promotes its British history in its U.S. marketing communications and an online "Heritage" video, but is careful in advertising, via Y&R, not to overdo it.

adjusted positioning

Land Rover North America started changing the brand's approach in the 1990s when it studied the U.S. market. Images of horseback riders on hunts don't resonate with people here, one marketing executive says. Land Rover's U.S. marketing executives prefer to talk directly about the strength of Land Rover's lineup.

Land Rover has a heritage as a pioneer work vehicle designed to traverse rough rural terrain. But the company typically doesn't build a campaign around its agricultural or military heritage.

"While our pedigree as an SUV pioneer and our authenticity are important to a group of customers, we're focusing more effort on our world-class attributes and our thoroughly modern range of SUVs," says Larry Rosinski, Land Rover communications director. Heritage is "a latent benefit but not the most important aspect. We want to focus on our world-class modern products."

Jim Folkman, senior sales executive at Fred Lavery Co., says car buyers in the tony, upscale area of Birmingham, Mich., like the subtle British touch. The dealership also sells Porsches and Audis.

Mr. Folkman, who started at Lavery when it was one of 25 dealers in Land Rover's national launch 19 years ago, thinks the automaker gets it right, in product visual hallmarks like stacked headlamps and ad messages.

"It's no different if you're a modern wealthy buyer in London, Dusseldorf or Milan-or Birmingham-they just want their Bluetooth to work. Land Rover has done a good job of internationalizing the product in view of who the customer is."

In 2001, Jaguar and Land Rover became part of Ford Motor's Premier Automotive Group, which formed a new North American sales and marketing organization, consisting of Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln Mercury and Volvo.

The British invasion also includes Mini USA, which relaunched the iconic brand in North America in 2002 after a 35-year absence.

remembering the beatles

In its pursuit of independent-minded buyers, Mini relies on irreverent humor in marketing and has built a strong online following. MDC Partners-backed Crispin Porter & Bogusky is Mini's agency. The automaker, part of BMW North America, had no choice but to market its Brit heritage, since the U.K. is the Mini's No. 1 market.

The story of Mini, from day one, unfolded by showing rallies of the 1960s, British royalty and even the Beatles, who owned Minis. Current themes are not campaigns so much as buzz-generating events that go beyond 60-second spots.

When Mini re-introduced the brand in America after a 35-year absence, it needed to show its history, marketing leaders say. "What we're really emphasizing is that Mini came from somewhere. It has a huge iconic status in Britain and Europe. It had a (VW) Beetle-like role in Europe," says Richard Steinberg, Mini manager-after sales and product strategy.

"To create a second-generation icon, we realized immediately you need to look at where you came from. It really adds to the whole brand mystique," says Mini spokesman Andrew Cutler.

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