NEW YORK - In the world of automotive advertising, the mass-market medium of network TV is beginning to look like a dinosaur.
Yes, it's big. And yes, it still dominates the landscape. But smaller automakers such as Subaru and Saab are beginning to abandon the costly shotgun approach to marketing.
In other words, niche automakers are adopting niche marketing methods.
This week, Saab is preparing to unleash a new brand ad campaign to introduce consumers to its expanded product lineup. However, Saab will spend nothing - not one dime - on network advertising.
Instead, the Swedish carmaker will focus on print ads and on a tightly focused group of cable TV channels. Saab's market research demonstrated that Saab owners are the most highly educated of any brand, according to Joel Manby, president of Saab Cars USA Inc.
'Saab is not for everybody, and we like it that way,' Manby told the Automotive Marketing Seminar, which was sponsored by Automotive News in New York on Thursday, April 1.
For Saab, network TV is an inefficient marketing shotgun, drawing many viewers who have no interest in Saab. Instead, the company asked Saab owners and potential owners which TV stations they watched.
As a result, Saab will advertise on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, the Learning Channel and CNBC, among others. The company also will advertise on National Public Radio.
Interestingly, Saab focused on National Public Radio after its dealers did some field research. Whenever Saab owners brought their cars to the dealership for service, the dealership would check to see which radio stations were programmed. A high percentage were tuned to the local National Public Radio affiliate.
'We are moving from broadcast to narrowcast,' said Manby. 'We have totally eliminated network TV. We believe that if you own the medium, you will own the message.'
In other words, Saab knew it was an also-ran on expensive network TV, where it would get lost in the clutter of big-bucks advertisers such as General Motors, Ford Motor Co. or Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. Instead, Saab poured advertising dollars into cable channels it could more easily dominate.
But none of this will matter much if buyers ignore the commercials. To attract them, Saab created an ad campaign - 'Saab vs. conventional thought' - intended to pique the intellectual curiosity of viewers.
For example, one magazine ad dubbed 'Saab vs. Vivaldi' will promote the versatility of the Saab convertible in spring, summer, fall and winter. One of Antonio Vivaldi's best-known musical compositions is 'The Four Seasons.'
To promote this message, Saab is raising its ad budget 5 percent. Since Saab is focusing tightly on print and cable TV, however, Manby predicts it will achieve much greater visibility with its target audience.
OUT OF THE MAINSTREAM
Another case in point is Subaru, which abandoned its ill-fated effort to be the next Honda or Toyota in 1993.
'We came to the conclusion that Subaru was a niche player, not a mainstream player,' said Tim Mahoney, marketing director of Subaru of America Inc. 'We also realized that mainstream products weren't going to work for us. Niche products attract niche customers.'
Mahoney described Subaru's evolution to a niche at the Automotive Marketing Seminar.
After some soul-searching in 1993, the company returned to its roots, focusing on a niche lineup of four-wheel-drive sedans and wagons. The company also launched an intensive effort to figure out the common traits of Subaru owners.
The brand had long been popular in Northern states with heavy snowfall. Given Subaru's all-wheel-drive lineup, that was no surprise. But the company soon discovered some unexpected things about its audience.
Subaru was very popular among doctors and nurses, teachers and engineers. It also was popular among outdoors enthusiasts - people who might go hiking, canoeing or camping.
To introduce its Outback lineup in the mid-1990s, Subaru budgeted $15 million, a fraction of the $100 million-plus that a company such as Ford might spend to introduce a vehicle such as the Taurus.
To cut through the clutter, Subaru hired actor Paul Hogan to plug the Outback's off-road abilities. So Subaru did not abandon network TV, but supplemented it with some nontraditional marketing gambits.
1999 AND BEYOND
Subaru had fine tuned its niche approach. This year, to reach teachers, for example, the company donated cars to five museums that sponsor traveling science exhibits for schoolchildren. After making his or her presentation, the museum's science teacher would hand out Subaru pamphlets offering discounts on visits to the local museum.
If a student's parents bought a Subaru, they would get a three-year membership to that museum. Mahoney estimates that this program has reached 500,000 teachers and parents over the past four years.
Subaru uses other tactics to reach health-care professionals. Marketing data showed that doctors and nurses preferred Subarus because they needed reliable transportation to the hospital in bad weather. To reach them, Subaru started buying ads in health-care trade publications.
The payoff? Subaru no longer needs incentives to sell its cars - a good indication of Subaru's distinctive brand image.