Americans Love Tiny Cars, They're Just Not Aware Of Them
Under Penske management, the Smart minicar brand sold fewer than 6,000 vehicles last year, capping a sales decline that led Mercedes to take back management duties for the brand. And, according to the new folks in charge of Smart, there’s only one real problem with the brand: awareness. Or, more precisely, lack thereof. We’ve heard this song before from Smart’s new GM, but now Ernst Lieb, boss of Mercedes U.S.A., is picking up the tune, telling Automotive News [sub] that
With the marketing activities that we’re going to have, we’ll see some positive momentum. The biggest problem the car has right now: Nobody knows it.
Which, of course, is nonsense. Nonsense that allows you to appear aware of the sales problem without acknowledging a single problem with the product itself, but nonsense none the less. And Smart’s not the only micro-car brand that’s reaching for it either, as Fiat-Chrysler marketing boss Olivier Francois has the exact same excuse for Fiat’s weak start, telling AdAge
I don’t think we have a car problem; people love the car. I think we have an awareness problem.
Are Americans incapable of seeing, recognizing or being aware of anything that weighs less than 3,000 lbs? Or is it possible that there are a few things wrong with the Smart and 500?
Let’s start with Smart. The brand will spend between $25m and $35m on its new campaign, which includes the ad at the top of this post, in hopes of bringing sales up to about 10k units per year. But one has to wonder: what is the difference between the new “unbig. uncar.” ad and the old “Think Small” tagline? Smart swears that its JD Power data shows 50 percent of consumers are “unaware” of its brand, but of the 50% that are aware, how many don’t realize that Smarts are small cars? I’d guess none. Besides, Smart would be incredibly lucky if 50% of Americans lived in circumstances that allowed them to consider owning a non-sporty two-seater that’s not cheap, not especially efficient, takes premium gas and has a notoriously unpleasant transmission. Like electric cars, city cars have a relatively small potential market due to their fundamental attributes; you don’t need an 80%+ awareness rate to find the few people who can use, afford and appreciate such a niche product.
Fiat, meanwhile, is actually benefitting from a lack of awareness… of what a mess its entire marketing campaign is. After starting off with an advertisement that was so horrifically dull Chrysler had to take it off of Youtube, Fiat handed things over to a small firm called Impatto… which apparently melted down into a complete sideshow. How bad are things? Fiat-Chrysler’s global marketing boss, Francois, is taking charge, and when asked what’s happened to Fiat’s US brand manager Laura Soave, Chrysler spokesfolks say
To my knowledge, Laura is still on board.
Yikes! But then, it might not be fair to put all the blame on Soave’s shoulders… after all, Francois is hardly setting the world on fire by plastering the J-Lo ad seen above all over football games. As if to confirm that marketing positions require the ability to uncritically chew your own bullshit, Francois claims
Listen, I’m not a great fan of using celebrities at any cost. I prefer a good idea to a bad celebrity. I used to say endorsements are lazy when you have no idea. But that’s not the point — from time to time you have a magic association. I like to take a celebrity because the celebrity’s story fits with the story.
And yet you have J-Lo selling a 100 HP cutesy-mobile during football games. And the NY Post reports the brand was planning on giving cars to “influencers” (read: celebrities) and then having TMZ photograph them, not to mention
planning celebrity drive events in the Hamptons this month and star-studded parties at Miami’s SoHo Beach House in October where celebs can drive the car. Fiat USA is also a Miami Fashion Week partner.
Sounds a lot like the 500’s marketing plan is “celebrities at all costs,” rather than all the BS about “magic associations”… although Francois denies any involvement in the paparazzi scheme, telling AdAge
I think there is a true part of the story and a totally invented part of the story. The paparazzi part is crazy to me. Maybe there had been internal talks but I was not involved. We were going to give the opportunity to some opinion leaders to drive the car. We have a lot of requests, around L.A. especially, to drive the car. It’s nothing but good to have opinion leaders driving your car. I don’t know what happened, but it spun out of control.
Between Smart and Fiat, we have two brands that face challenges going into the market due to limited product offerings with limited appeal to US consumers. In the case of Smart, the marketing has always been decent… “Think Small” was a great tagline, and the latest ad proves there’s no better way to sell a car like the ForTwo. But because the original marketing was good, the new marketing is nearly identical, and the product hasn’t changed, don’t look for Smart to go anywhere in its battle for awareness.
Fiat, on the other hand, has made such a colossal mess of the 500 marketing campaign ever since it arrived in the US, a complete marketing re-boot could probably yield some kind of benefit. But clearly Soave and Francois are fresh out of ideas… Fiat-Chrysler needs to get some very smart people studying every marketing move MINI has ever made in this country and then rebooting the 500’s marketing from scratch. After all, when you’re selling niche products, awareness isn’t enough… consumers need to want the product so badly, they’re willing to put up with its downsides. Being aware of its cuteness alone isn’t enough. For a brand like Fiat, with a product like the 500, talking about the problem in terms of “awareness” simply proves how badly they’ve bungled the entire effort. And that it’s time to start over from scratch.
More by Edward Niedermeyer
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