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Detroit 3 now need to sell their products

July 31, 2009

Detroit 3 now need to sell their products

BY TOM WALSH
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

Now that General Motors and Chrysler have emerged from bankruptcy and the cash-for-clunkers law is driving traffic to dealer showrooms, how do Detroit’s long-suffering automakers convince more people to buy — or at least consider buying — domestic?

Each of the Detroit Three faces enormous advertising and marketing challenges.

And yes, I include Ford Motor Co., even if it is wearing a halo in the public mind for soldiering on without taxpayer money.

Indeed, Ford’s marketers face a major test now, as they launch the new 2010 Taurus sedan with an advertising campaign that begins next week.

"The challenge is to change people’s perception of what Taurus is all about," confessed Mike Crowley, Ford’s marketing manager for large cars and crossover vehicles.

The problem is not brand-name recognition — 87% of people know the Taurus name. They just don’t have a very high opinion of it.

Changing history

People old enough to remember Taurus as the innovative design that took the midsize sedan segment by storm in 1986 will also remember Ford’s subsequent neglect of the Taurus, which was sold mainly to rental car fleets before being discontinued in 2006.

Alan Mulally, Ford’s president and CEO, joined Ford from Boeing just as Taurus was being discarded. Mystified at tossing aside such a well-known brand name, Mulally retrieved it from the trash bin and suggested it be put to good use. Ford’s brain trust, not inclined to blow off the new CEO, went to work on it.

So now Taurus is reborn as a full-size sedan, competing with the likes of Toyota Avalon and Chrysler 300C, and priced from $26,000 up to $40,000 and beyond. The target Taurus buyer is a male, 46, who will be impressed by the design and an array of high-technology features associated with more costly luxury brands like Audi, Lexus or Infiniti.

Can Mulally’s team transform the Taurus perception from tired rental to aspirational and near-luxury? We’ll see.

At least Ford’s got corporate brand momentum going for it, with strong quality rankings and public approval for not asking for government help.

A harder road ahead

GM and Chrysler’s image challenges are more daunting. Both corporate names are badly damaged from public aid and bankruptcies, although surveys do show that individual vehicle brands such as Chevrolet, Cadillac and Jeep have not been hurt as much.

Look for Bob Lutz, the GM vice chairman and now chief creative guru, to shake up advertising with heavy emphasis on the vehicle brands and products like the Chevy Volt. The blocky GM logo may not disappear entirely, but that sucker will surely shrink, literally and figuratively.

Chrysler, too, needs to focus on specific strengths — minivans, Dodge Ram trucks and maybe the next Jeep Grand Cherokees — until new partner-owner Fiat can add some diversity to the product lineup.

Now more than ever, it’s all about the products. No more do-overs for Detroit.

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