Honda and ad agency grew together
Rubin Postaer never lost sight of the product
In 1986, Gerry Rubin and Larry Postaer, team members on the Honda account at the Needham Harper agency, were told that Needham had been sold to the Omnicom Group. Omnicom had the Volkswagen and Dodge accounts and decided to jettison Honda.
That left Honda, a small but upcoming player in the United States, without an agency. So Rubin and Postaer thought: Why not make a bid on the Honda account?
After all, they had helped propel the brand into the limelight with ads touting the Civics and technological prowess of the company.
Koichi Amemiya, president of American Honda Motor Co., "was very upset" that Omnicom had dumped Honda, Rubin said.
So Rubin and partner Postaer asked for the business. "We had no name, no office, no line of credit," Rubin said.
But it didn't take long for Amemiya to give them an answer.
"He had only one question," Rubin said. "And that was, 'Do the people stay the same?' The company name did not matter, just the people."
So 100-plus Needham people joined Rubin and Postaer, and Rubin Postaer and Associates, in Santa Monica, Calif., was born.
"Many of them are still with us," Rubin said. "It's an amazing story based on a bond of trust."
In the following decades, Rubin Postaer continued to build a distinct brand image for Honda — understated, technologically advanced and environmentally friendly.
Bond of trust
Both Rubin and Postaer are full of life — jovial and youthful. Postaer, 70, is the creative partner, and Rubin, 69, handles business matters.
They have tried to communicate the value of Honda and its automobiles by using strong celebrity voiceovers to give the commercials depth, consistency and credibility. Some well-known voices in the past were Burgess Meredith, Jack Lemmon and Richard Dreyfuss. Today it's Kevin Spacey.
"The whole reason for doing that is to give a specialness to Honda commercials," Postaer said. "We've never identified who they are, but they bring something special. They're playing announcer, but they're actors. That's a big difference."
Because Honda was small, Rubin and Postaer worked on limited budgets. But Honda gave them much leeway to promote the cars.
"One thing that Honda always gave us was product in which advertising did not have to enhance the benefit," Rubin said. "The benefits were already inherent in the product. That makes a copywriter's and art director's jobs so much easier. We let the car be the star. We don't have the ads hollering and screaming."
Rubin recalled the days at Needham when the agency came up with the 1974 ads for the first Civic and the creation of the tag line: "Honda — we make it simple," which started in the 1978 model year.
But Rubin and Postaer say the greatest work came out of their agency, particularly the 1989 "Art Gallery" commercial introducing the redesigned 1990 Accord. The spot showed a man looking at the Accord as if it were a piece of artwork. He climbs the wall to get into the car.
"That was the turning point for Honda's advertising," Postaer said. "That commercial really helped give the car an identity. The car is so great it can be on the wall of an art gallery."
The Accord "was doing OK," Postaer said. "But this new model was bigger, faster, sleeker. It really put Honda in the big leagues. I would say that was the most important commercial we did for Honda."
In 1989, the Accord, for the first time, was the top-selling car and the third best-selling vehicle in this country, a position it held through 1991.
Postaer recalled the seven-figure "Stealth Bomber" commercial for the CRX hatchback. He said Tom Elliott, head of American Honda's automotive operations, signed off on the commercial without monitoring the work along the way.
Then there was the 30-second teaser spot in 1982 that talked about Honda's soon-to-open plant in Marysville, Ohio, that would build the 1983 Accord. The commercial was just a blank screen with a voiceover by Burgess Meredith talking about the new plant and car with the tag line "You ain't seen nothing yet."
"So Honda paid for a blank screen," Rubin said.
There also was the Internet commercial in which the CR-V ran through the pages of the USA Today newspaper, and Honda's gutsy tag line taking aim at longtime minivan leader Dodge with commercials for the second-generation Odyssey.
Said Rubin: "The line was, 'It's the Honda of minivans.'
"When you have built a brand, you have the opportunity to translate the strengths of that brand and to use those strengths to launch products within the brand," he said. "That's why we're so careful never to compromise the integrity of the brand. The Honda name is so valuable."
From tiny cars to Honda's first pickup, Rubin Postaer keeps clicking along. And they see a brand with nowhere to go but up.
"Remember where we started in 1974," Rubin said. "Putt-putt, couldn't go up the hill, to where we are now with the Honda of minivans. That's taking a brand and taking it out of two wheels to four wheels, from cars to trucks, and we're jealously guarding that image."