Note to automobile dealers: Worry about blurred brands

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Auto people, and even our own Automotive News, are steamed that a series of TV commercials aired by the National Automobile Dealers Association during National Football League games depicted dealers as "slick" and "fast-talking." Never mind that NADA ran $5 million worth of the TV commercials on NFL games for free in compensation for moving this year's NADA convention up a week to accommodate the Super Bowl.

I thought the NADA commercials were pretty good. They showed a dealer at a picnic fundraiser and bake sale mixing it up with his neighbors. The narrator says: "It is easy to spot your local new-car dealer. They're the ones committed to helping out in your community. New-car dealers also employ over 1 million people, making them a big part of every town."

What's wrong with that? An auto dealer is seen as a caring member of the community. How warm. How involving. But what stirred the ire of the dealers is that the commercials made fun of some of their tried and true sales pitches. For instance, a dealer asks a girl at the picnic's dessert table: "I see that you've got your eye on that cupcake. Good choice. Now let me tell you what that comes with." Or a woman tries to get a young boy to join a sack race by asking: "So tell me-what's it going to take to get you into this potato sack?" Or a man urges a kid on a pony: "So, cowboy, let's see what this baby can do."

What's good about these spots is they play off very recognizable stereotypes of auto dealers. You can't expect to change perceptions in a few commercials so it makes sense to make light of dealers' single-minded zeal to close a sale while, at the same time, showing they have another, more admirable side. Avoiding what everybody was already thinking about dealers would have given the ads less credibility.

If I were a dealer I wouldn't worry about such alleged slights to my bruised image. The good news is auto dealers now rank higher than accountants in the public's esteem. The bad news is that many of the auto brands they sell are in danger of blurring their own images by marketing both high-end and low-end cars and everything in the middle.

You can buy a Mercedes starting at about $25,000 and go up to well over $100,000 (soon to be more than $200,000). "Unlike any other" is the tagline for Mercedes' new ad campaign. In reality, the cars are getting to be just like everybody else's. (Is that one of the reasons Mercedes' reputation for quality is beginning to erode?)

I read in Automotive News that sales of Mercedes' entry level C series now represent 39% of all Mercedes sold in the U.S., up from 29% last year. But sales for the high-end S class were down 33%.

"As long as we're the aspirational brand in whatever segment we're in, that's OK," Dave Schembri, VP-marketing, told AN. I'm not so sure about that. What's so aspirational about the top of the line S 500 when a guy can pull up beside you in a Mercedes selling for $50,000 less?

Maybe Mercedes should borrow Household International's new slogan: "We're helping everyday people. Everyday." And since English is its second language, I'm sure Mercedes would be extra careful not to make the grammatical error Household did.

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