GIVEN the sputtering economy, it is hard enough for a marketer to sell a familiar product, much less interest consumers in trying a new one. And if the new product is a durable good like a car, the challenge could be as formidable as getting a mad man like Don Draper to stop smoking or drinking.
Although the economy is “certainly better than last summer,” it is “still fundamentally ill,” said Steven Center, vice president for advertising and public relations at American Honda in Torrance, Calif.
“How do you develop and launch new products in this environment?” Mr. Center asked rhetorically, adding that American Honda had “rethought everything” since “the world blew up in the fall of 2008” to concentrate on “cars that have better value and an increased focus in fuel economy.”
The CR-Z “fits very nicely in the world going forward,” Mr. Center said.
The CR-Z name is meant to evoke a popular Honda of the past, the CRX hatchback. And to further ground the new model in the realm of automotive options, a campaign soon to get under way positions the CR-Z as a hybrid sports car — or, if you prefer, a sporty hybrid car.
The campaign, by RPA in Santa Monica, Calif., suggests to the primary target audience of men ages 25 to 35 that the CR-Z is “everything a hybrid is. And isn’t.” The ads liken the car to fire and ice, described by an announcer in a commercial as “complete opposites in complete harmony,” or an eclipse, which demonstrates that “on rare occasions, opposites can coexist.”
One commercial underscores the idea by using on the soundtrack a rocking version of “Night and Day.”
The campaign may ring a bell with those who remember the ads that proclaimed Certs was “two, two, two mints in one” — i.e., a breath mint and a candy mint — or recall the campaign that declared Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups offered “two great tastes that taste great together.”
The CR-Z is portrayed as “the best of both worlds,” Mr. Center said, “delivering on two consumer needs: it’s sporty, and it’s a hybrid.”
To many drivers, a hybrid “at this point is pretty mundane,” Mr. Center said, so the campaign will play up how much fun the CR-Z can be.
“I drove one to San Diego a couple weeks ago, and I was going 80 miles an hour and got 40 miles a gallon,” he added. “Your results may vary, as they say.”
The campaign is to be infused with innovative elements, intended to signal the innovative aspects of the CR-Z. For instance, there will be ads in 3-D on television; in movie theaters; in print, in Maxim magazine; online; and outdoors, in Times Square.
It is “a little far down the road” to suggest that 3-D is to advertising what hybrid technology is to cars, Mr. Center said, then paused. “It’s more than 2-D,” he continued, referring to 3-D, “and maybe the car is more than 2-D.”
The CR-Z will also take part in iPad applications for magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Wired; sponsor the first Online Video Awards to be presented by Vimeo.com; be part of a social game on Facebook called Car Town; appear on Hulu and YouTube; and be a sponsor of the 2010 Video Music Awards on MTV.
The goal is to “make it stand out in a crowded marketplace,” said Joe Baratelli, senior vice president and group creative director at RPA. “There’s so much noise, so many vehicles, and the economy.”
“One reason we thought 3-D was the right opportunity because it could get noticed,” he added. The campaign represents the first commercials produced by RPA in 3-D.
“It’s been fun to do and see the possibilities,” Mr. Baratelli said, even if it was “a lot more complicated” than had initially been expected.
The CR-Z introduction follows the introduction of the Accord Crosstour, which made its debut during Super Bowl XLIV in February. American Honda has more to come, Mr. Center said, including a redesigned version of the Odyssey minivan, styling and power-train changes for the Accord and a new version of the Civic due next spring, as a 2012 model.
The hope, he added, is that the CR-Z will have a “halo effect” on the rest of the Honda lineup in a way that another hybrid, the Insight, brought back to the United States last year, has so far not.
“Insight was meant to be your first hybrid or your first car,” Mr. Center said, “and we launched it after all the kids got out of school and couldn’t find work.”
American Honda intends to “take some product actions” to improve its sales performance, he added, declining to be specific.
Mr. Center was also not specific about the budget for the CR-Z campaign. He said it would be about the same as the ad budget for the Crosstour, which is expected to sell twice as many units as the CR-Z.
“In our vernacular, it’s considered a big launch,” he said of the CR-Z introduction.
During the first quarter, when the Crosstour introduction was in gear, American Honda spent $194.9 million on ads in major media, according to the Kantar Media unit of WPP, up 30 percent from the $150 million spent in the same period a year ago.
By contrast, American Honda spent $620 million on ads in 2009, Kantar Media reported, down 25.4 percent from $831.3 million in 2008.
John Paul Strong
John Paul Strong combines his two decades of automotive marketing experience with a team of more than 140 professionals as owner and CEO of Strong Automotive Merchandising.