Americans Love Tiny Cars, They're Just Not Aware Of Them

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

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.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

More by Edward Niedermeyer

Join the conversation
2 of 46 comments
  • Kendahl Kendahl on Sep 26, 2011

    With decent marketing and some improvements, principally an Abarth version, the 500 could succeed as a niche vehicle. My wife loved our 1987 Civic hatch because it was so short. So is the 500. I like the idea of a roller skate that can zip through traffic. I see they are calling the Smart an "uncar". That's the truth because it isn't a car; it's a bad joke. The Smart has no virtues that can't be duplicated in other, better vehicles. If you want to stay at the same price and get the same gas mileage, buy a Ford Fiesta. If you want more room and can spend a bit more, buy a Honda Fit.

  • Darth Lefty Darth Lefty on Sep 27, 2011

    $30,000,000 campaign / 10,000 sales = $3,000 per car. They must be taking a bath. They should have spent it on incentives.

  • Ronin The very asking of the question "Are Plug-In Hybrids the Future?" is an interesting one. Because just 2 or 3 years ago we'd be asking- no, asserting- that E cars are the future. We're no longer asking that question.
  • Peter Benn There apparently were some K-code 4-dr sedan Fairlanes. Collectible Automobile Apr 2024 has found a '63 500 with HD 3/spd.
  • Mia Hey there!I recently stumbled upon the Crack Eraser DIY Windshield Repair Kit (check it out here: and decided to give it a shot on a small chip in my windshield. I have to say, it worked like a charm! Super easy to use, and it saved me a trip to the professionals. If you're dealing with a similar issue, this kit is definitely worth considering. 😊
  • Rust-MyEnemy Whoa, what the hell is wrong with Jalop1991 and his condescension? It's as if he's employed by Big Plug-In or something."I've seen plenty of your types on the forums....."Dunno what that means, but I'm not dead keen on being regarded as "A type" by a complete stranger"" I'm guessing you've never actually calculated by hand the miles you've driven against the quantity of gas used--which is your actual miles per gallon."Guess again. Why the hell would you even say that? Yes, I worked it out. Fill-to-fill, based on gas station receipts. And it showed me that a Vauxhall Astra PHEV, starting out with a fully charged PHEV battery, in Hybrid mode, on my long (234-mile) daily motorway daily commute, never, over several months, ever matched or beat the economy of the regular hybrid Honda Civic that I ran for a similar amount of time (circa 5000 miles)."You don't use gasoline at all for 30-40 miles as you use exclusively battery power, then your vehicle is a pure hybrid. Over 234 miles, you will have used whatever gas the engine used for 200 of those miles."At least you're right on that. In hybrid mode, though, the Astra was using battery power when it wasn't at all appropriate. The petrol engine very rarely chimed in when battery power was on tap, and as a result, the EV-mode range quickly disappeared. The regular hybrid Civic, though, deployed its very small electric reserves (which are used up quickly but restore themselves promptly), much more wisely. Such as when on a trailing throttle or on a downward grade, or when in stop-start traffic. As a result, at the end of my 234 miles, the Civic had used less gas than the Astra. Moreover, I hadn't had to pay for the electricity in its battery.I look forward to you arguing that what actually happened isn't what actually happened, but I was there and you were not."Regardless, that you don't understand it appears not to have stopped you from pontificating on it. Please, do us all a favor--don't vote."You really are quite unpleasant, aren't you. But thanks for the advice.
  • Tassos Jong-iL Electric vehicles are mandated by 2020 in One Korea. We are ahead of the time.