Monday, June 4, 2007

Minivan launch tests Chrysler's marketing

The launch of the 2008 Chrysler Town & Country, above, and the Dodge Grand Caravan minivans is crucial.

Minivan launch tests Chrysler's marketing
'08 products arrive at a crucial time

Mary Connelly
Automotive News
June 4, 2007 - 1:00 am

DETROIT -- Chrysler group dealers start ordering the company's 2008 minivans this week, and Chrysler's promotion of the vehicles raises several major marketing questions.

For instance: In an era of crossovers and strong competition from Japanese automakers, how will the company position the redesigned Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country in the U.S. market? And how will the company better define and differentiate its brands?

Yet another question: Who will oversee the minivan launch? George Murphy, the Chrysler group's senior vice president of global brand marketing, resigned last week. The company has not named his successor.

The 2008 minivans represent "a big deal and a big opportunity" for Chrysler, says Bud Liebler, a former Chrysler executive who runs a

strategic communications firm in suburban Detroit. Advertising should emphasize that "Chrysler is still the minivan king," he says.

Go-to vans

"The message they have to get out is that if you are in the market for a minivan, Chrysler is where you have to go first," Liebler told Automotive News. "This is not a design story. This is a story about interior functionality."

George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., a consulting firm in suburban Los Angeles, says the minivan market "is going to be deteriorating." Chrysler faces strong competition from the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey, he says.

To meet that competition, Peterson says, Chrysler must define its redesigned minivans as benchmark vehicles with "a high value proposition."

The minivan launch comes at a time of turmoil for Chrysler's marketing operations. Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda and dealers have complained that the company's recent advertising often did not include enough product information. BBDO Detroit is the Chrysler group's longtime ad agency.

Introducing the minivans enables Chrysler to strengthen its brand images, analysts say.

"Dodge is the strongest," Liebler says. "'Bold, powerful, capable' were the words used 15 years ago. They are still going that way. Jeep has gone astray, trying to be too many things to too many people.

"Chrysler is still trying to find its soul," he says. "What is its center? What is the core? I was there when the PT Cruiser was named a Chrysler, so I am not pointing fingers. But is it really a Chrysler, or does that confuse the brand?"

Peterson says: "Many folks don't know what the Chrysler brand is. Is it a luxury brand like Cadillac or a premium brand like Buick? It's like walking a tightrope.

"Chrysler had a great opportunity when they launched the 300 and 300C to establish the brand at a higher than premium level," Peterson says. "But they have precluded that with the Sebring and PT Cruiser in the lineup. The product line is too broad to pull off being a luxury brand."

Dealers' choice

John Schenden, a Denver dealer who sits on the Chrysler-Jeep National Dealer Council, says Chrysler group advertising should emphasize product features and price. "Show the vehicle as much as possible, interior and exterior," he says. "Have a short message on pricing or incentives."

Jim Arrigo, chairman of the Chrysler-Jeep National Dealer Council, says he expects advertising for Chrysler and Jeep to focus more on brand identity and vehicle nameplates and less on sales events and incentives.

"Bring the Chrysler brand back to what it was in the past," says Arrigo, who owns a Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep dealership in Palm Beach, Fla. "Try to get more passion back in the brand. People don't know about us, about the quality of the products we have."

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