Camry, Altima intros weather Sept. 11

LOS ANGELES - Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. had dotted every "i" and crossed every "t" in its launch plans for the redesigned Camry, the automaker's franchise car.

Five-second Camry teaser ads on network TV kicked off the campaign in late August. A broader $160 million corporate campaign, centered on the tag line "Get the feeling," started Sept. 3 and was to expand into print Sept. 10.

At the same time, Nissan North America was beginning to promote the redesigned Altima with network commercials featuring former design chief Jerry Hirshberg. Those commercials for the Altima, which has been configured to go head-to-head with the Camry and Honda Accord for the first time, are backed by an estimated $70 million corporate campaign urging consumers to feel "Driven."

Both launches - each of vital importance to the respective company - threatened to be thrown off track by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Although dealership traffic and sales temporarily plummeted as Americans reflected on the horror of the event, neither launch suffered major damage, company executives say.

Little damage control

Rolling with TV schedules that were rehashed after news coverage of the attacks, Toyota debuted its full-length commericals one week later than scheduled, with major network premieres.

"All the networks basically did was move their schedules back a week," said Steve Sturm, vice president of marketing for Toyota Division.

He said Toyota altered two commercials because of special effects, turned over its time on an electronic billboard in Times Square in New York to disaster-relief efforts and reworked ad schedules. Research shows that consumers still consider the Camry ad campaign to be in good taste and effective, he said.

Toyota dealers say shoppers entering their stores are aware there's a new Camry.

"It turned out our sales were almost the same as last year for September," said Ken Schneider, general manager and part owner of Metro Toyota in Cleveland, which sells 300 new vehicles a month.

Nissan ad blitz on time

Nissan, meanwhile, began leaking some Altima ads in August. The automaker stuck to its Monday, Oct. 1, launch for a wider corporate campaign featuring spots for the Altima, Xterra, Pathfinder and Frontier Crew Cab.

"The research that we've seen since a week and half after the attacks shows that people want to see normal television programming again, and normal advertising," said Jed Connelly, Nissan North America senior vice president of sales and marketing.

But Connelly said Altima sales will not hit their target of 190,000 annually.

Eric Noble, president of CarLab, a consulting firm in Santa Ana, Calif., says the main reason the Camry and Altima launches were unscathed by September's downturn is that Toyota and Nissan enjoyed high share of mind with consumers before Sept. 11.

"Most of the import models were on stronger legs to begin with, so they were less affected. Those who were on unfirm footing suffered the most," he said.

Toyota last year sold 422,961 Camrys. Nissan sold 136,971 Altimas. Noble said the Altima launch had gone exceptionally well - a promising debut for a new platform Nissan will use for future vehicles, including a new minivan.

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