LOS ANGELES - First it was 'precision crafted performance.' Later, it was 'worth the price.' Now, 13 years after being born, Acura again is searching for an identity.
Last month, the luxury arm of American Honda Motor Co. cut its ties with agency Suissa Miller after three years. Acura's ads now will be done by Rubin Postaer and Associates of Santa Monica, Calif.
Rubin Postaer is no stranger to the company. The agency has handled Honda Division business since 1974.
Now, for the first time, American Honda, in search of consistent yet separate images, is putting both divisions in the hands of one agency.
The consistency is needed. Rubin Postaer is Acura's third agency in four years. Since Acura was created in 1986, control of regional ads has shifted from dealers to headquarters to dealers and soon will move back again. The decade has seen an assortment of ad themes and tag lines and, for a while, no theme at all.
'We need to maintain the distinctness of the two divisions, and with one agency doing them both, it might actually be easier to keep them apart,' said Eric Conn, American Honda assistant vice president of national automotive advertising. 'We want to mesh them better and keep them out of each other's way.'
But Acura also needs to find what it really means to consumers. One thing is certain: Acura won't go back to its advertising roots, when the first Japanese luxury franchise was promoted with the words 'precision crafted performance.'
You're supposed to have performance if you're selling a luxury car; so selling 'precision crafted performance' should be a given, Conn said.
'We have to substantiate that we are a luxury car,' he said. 'We want to move the entire brand upscale. Most luxury cars are coming down to our price point. We want to move our image and positioning upscale, but not the price.'
The heart of Acura's lineup - the Integra, CL coupe, SLX sport-utility and TL and RL sedans - start roughly between $20,000 and $45,000. The NSX sports coupe stands in another world, the $85,000 range.
That growing lineup poses a challenge: Acura's ad budget can't market each of the vehicles properly. And lining them all up and saying, 'We've got a lot of cars for sale,' is not a good advertising formula, Conn said.
`LOST ITS DIRECTION'
After its initial success, Acura seemed unsure of what to do in this market.
In one major move, Acura decided in 1993 to play up the Acura franchise at the expense of such names as the Legend, its flagship. Alphanumeric names became the Acura standard.
Research told Acura executives that alphanumerics connoted luxury more than the simple names did. Only the Integra, which was stretching to be considered 'near luxury,' kept its name.
At the same time, Acura tried to move upscale to fight off the impact of the strong yen. But a new campaign, 'Some things are worth the price,' failed. Consumers could see that Acura was not as luxurious as some of its competitors. For more than a year, Acura's national advertising was rudderless, even as the division introduced a series of new products.
Acura briefly re-embraced its performance-luxury roots in 1996 after replacing its original agency, Ketchum, with Suissa Miller. But sales lagged. So Acura jumped into 'brand retail' marketing. Ads focused on specific products in a bid to hoist the overall brand.
One analyst noted that Acura's struggles since the early 1990s have reflected more than just a franchise trying to find the right marketing path. Such products as the Vigor, 3.5RL and first-generation TL-series sedans did not resonate with luxury consumers.
'They wanted to compete with Lexus and the Europeans, but Acura didn't have the right product and buyer base to work with,' said Wes Brown, analyst with Nextrend, an automotive consulting firm in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
'Marketing is irrelevant if the product doesn't support what you're trying to say. Trying a different message every year, but selling the same product, is confusing and can be very damaging to your overall image, because consumers have no idea what you stand for.'
Acura's U.S. sales story reflects such struggles. Sales peaked in 1991 at 143,798. For the past six years, sales have leveled off in the 110,000 range.
The last time Acura changed agencies, in 1996, Rubin Postaer bid for the account but was rebuffed.
At the time, Acura and Honda had separate executive vice presidents. Now both divisions are led by one, Dick Colliver.
One of the first changes involving Acura marketing will be bringing control of regional marketing back to national headquarters - again. Colliver already weathered a storm by doing this with Honda regional advertising.
Conn dislikes the 'immediacy' behind regional advertising when left in the hands of the dealer groups.
'It's contradictory, and we don't enjoy any synergies,' he said.
Rubin Postaer's Acura work will be seen next spring, when a redesigned CL coupe will arrive. Suissa Miller's ads will continue until then.
In the meantime, the new agency will wrestle with a new question: What will Acura stand for?
'Acura is for the person who is quality-minded, not badge-minded,' Conn said. 'But three words on a blackboard aren't our target. Maybe it's a starting point.'