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.

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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.

  • Aidian Holder I'm not interested in buying anything from a company that deliberately targets all their production in crappy union-busting states. Ford decided to build their EV manufaturing in Tennessee. The company built it there because of an anti-union legal environment. I won't buy another Ford because of that. I've owned four Fords to date -- three of them pickups. I'm shopping for a new one. It won't be a Ford Lightning. If you care about your fellow workers, you won't buy one either.
  • Denis Jeep have other cars?!?
  • Darren Mertz In 2000, after reading the glowing reviews from c/d in 1998, I decided that was the car for me (yep, it took me 2 years to make up my mind). I found a 1999 with 24k on the clock at a local Volvo dealership. I think the salesman was more impressed with it than I was. It was everything I had hoped for. Comfortable, stylish, roomy, refined, efficient, flexible, ... I can't think of more superlatives right now but there are likely more. I had that car until just last year at this time. A red light runner t-boned me and my partner who was in the passenger seat. The cops estimate the other driver hit us at about 50 mph - on a city street. My partner wasn't visibly injured (when the seat air bag went off it shoved him out of the way of the intruding car) but his hip was rather tweaked. My car, though, was gone. I cried like a baby when they towed it away. I ruminated for months trying to decide how to replace it. Luckily, we had my 1998 SAAB 9000 as a spare car to use. I decided early on that there would be no new car considered. I loathe touch screens. I'm also not a fan of climate control. Months went by. I decided to keep looking for another B5 Passat. As the author wrote, the B5.5 just looked 'over done'. October this past year I found my Cinderella slipper - an early 2001. Same silver color. Same black leather interior. Same 1.8T engine. Same 5 speed manual transmission. I was happier than a pig in sh!t. But a little sad also. I had replaced my baby. But life goes on. I drive it every day to work which takes me over some rather twisty freeway ramps. I love the light snarel as I charge up some steep hills on my way home. So, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Passat guy.
  • Paul Mezhir As awful as the styling was on these cars, they were beautifully assembled and extremely well finished for the day. The doors closed solidly, the ride was extremely quiet and the absence of squeaks and rattles was commendable. As for styling? Everything's beautiful in it's own way.....except for the VI's proportions were just odd: the passenger compartment and wheelbase seemed to be way too short, especially compared to the VI sedan. Even the short-lived Town Coupe had much better proportions. None of the fox-body Lincolns could compare to the beautiful proportions of the Mark was the epitome of long, low, sleek and elegant. The proportions were just about perfect from every angle.
  • ToolGuy Silhouetting yourself on a ridge like that is an excellent way to get yourself shot ( Skylining)."Don't you know there's a special military operation on?"