ORLANDO, Fla. - Dodge brand loyalty has been improving over the past few years, but it still is below the national average.
So Dodge is getting bolder with its relationship-marketing strategy in an effort to forge better ties to its owners. The division last month hosted 2,500 Dodge owners at two theme parks here.
About 12,000 Dodge owners and family members responded to Dodge's offer of a 'Dodge Adventure,' a discounted vacation at Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida theme parks here June 17-19. It was by far the largest group that Dodge has brought together for relationship building.
A report by Polk, a market-research company based in Detroit, indicates that Dodge's customer loyalty - Dodge owners who bought another Dodge - has been improving steadily over the past two years, while industry performance has remained relatively stable.
In the first half of the 1999 model year, 43.2 percent of people who purchased or leased a Dodge already owned one. The industry loyalty average was 45.7 percent.
Dodge make loyalty has increased from 5 percentage points below average in 1997 to 2.5 percentage points below average in the first half of the 1999 model year, according to the Polk Manufacturer Loyalty Excelerator Household Loyalty Report.
Based on some owner reactions at the theme parks, Dodge already considers the Orlando event a success. Dodge now is mailing thank-you letters and is calling 600 of the participating owners to determine whether the Dodge brand 'got a lift from this event and whether we should do it again,' said Bo Puffer, Dodge strategic alliance specialist.
The ultimate test is whether these owners buy another Dodge, so the division will track them to see whether that happens, Puffer said.
'The fact that 2,500 Dodge owners responded is an impressive signal,' said Rick Barlow, president of Frequency Marketing Inc., a marketing services firm in Cincinnati. 'It shows the readiness of customers for a deeper relationship. Now the big challenge: How does Dodge build on this?'
VIPER OWNERS CONVENE
Dodge has done this kind of marketing before, but with much smaller groups and with specialty vehicles.
In April, 800 Dodge Viper owners convened in Las Vegas for the Fifth Viper Owners Invitational. Dodge also holds regional events for the owners of Dodge Ram pickup trucks powered by Cummins diesel engines.
Barlow called the Dodge Orlando event a skillful marketing tactic that apparently created an indelible impression on the participating owners.
'Now Dodge must take that momentum and leverage it to make an impression on other Dodge owners,' Barlow said. Dodge might do that by holding post-trip parties at some dealerships for owners who participated and for those who did not, he said.
Dodge must follow up with the owners who participated in the Orlando event because 'a one-time event alone won't build loyalty,' said Karen Piurkowski, director of loyalty at Polk.
According to the Polk study, owners of the Dodge Ram pickup and Dodge Van have at least industry-average loyalty to the brand. But there still is room within Dodge trucks to build loyalty because of the stiff competition from Ford, Chevrolet and GMC pickups, Piurkowski said.
A MARKETING TEST
Jim Julow, vice president and head of Dodge, did not reveal the cost of the Orlando event.
'We've done owner events in the past, for Viper and turbo diesel,' Julow said. 'The challenge always was, can you expand on that and do something with your rank-and-file owner? Quite frankly, it's a test. This is our first large-volume opportunity to get close to a Caravan owner, to get close to a Stratus owner, or Ram pickup owner that doesn't have a diesel.'
The Dodge owners came from 46 states, nearly all of them driving here in their Dodge vehicles. Most drove Caravans and Grand Caravans, Rams and Dakota pickups.
Dodge lured them here with a special $399 package that included passes for a family of four good for three days in both parks.
'In a way, I feel proud to own a Dodge,' said Carmen Mahabir, who drove here with her two girls from Houston. 'I feel like I'm part of a Dodge community.'
David Hill, who drove his 1993 Dodge Intrepid here from Atlanta, said this kind of marketing would encourage Dodge owners to remain with the brand.
'We feel special, actually,' Hill said. He was here with his wife and two children. 'When I got the letter, I was really excited. This is the first time that Dodge, or any major auto company, put on something like this for me.'