The Grand Vitara has been a boon to American Suzuki Motor Corp. The sport-utility, which debuted last fall, is Suzuki's best seller, attracting new buyers to dealerships. So the Grand Vitara is carrying the brand torch in advertising for the second straight year.
'Grand Vitara is starting to make a push to increase sales and brand image,' said Lore McKen-na, national advertising manager at the company. Before introducing the sport-utility, Suzuki research revealed consumers were more familiar with the company's motorcycles than cars or trucks.
More recent research showed 80 percent of Grand Vitara buyers are new to Suzuki, McKenna said. They're older and more affluent than buyers of the Sidekick, which the Grand Vitara replaced. The mean age of Grand Vitara buyers is 43 vs. 36 for the Sidekick. More than 60 percent of Grand Vitara buyers have annual household incomes of more than $50,000; 25 percent of that group have incomes of more than $75,000. Most Sidekick owners had annual household incomes of between $35,000 and $40,000.
'We're going through a metamorphosis,' said Suzuki dealer Pete Kirill. Grand Vitara buyers at his showroom in Jackson-ville, Fla., also have Toyota's RAV4 and Honda's CR-V on their shopping lists.
'We're having a great year and doing better than ever,' he said. Better advertising - and more of it - has helped, he said.
Fred Savage, a dealer in Reading, Pa., said the new product is the main reason for rising sales, and he would like more.
SUV FLIES WITH FOOTBALL
Suzuki wanted to get the word out about the Grand Vitara, so it returned to national TV last fall after an 11-year absence to launch the six-cylinder sport-utility. The vehicle got a $30 million media push over six months starting in September 1998, McKenna said.
For the second straight year, Suzuki is sponsoring the 'Heisman Watch,' with weekly updates about contenders during CBS broadcasts of college football games. On CNN and CNN Sports Illustrated, Suzuki advertises during vignettes of past trophy winners during 'College Football Preview.' The vignettes also run on CNN's airport network at 34 major airports plus jumbo screens at 10 college football stadiums.
Suzuki is the official automobile of the Heisman Trophy, which is mentioned in print ads. The carmaker is spending $35 million over three years for the sponsorship program. In calendar 1998, Suzuki spent $24 million in measured media vs. $9.6 million in 1997, according to Competitive Media Reporting in New York.
There are displays in dealer showrooms urging consumers to vote for their favorite Heisman contender. Sports journalists pick the winner, but the consumers' top choice will get one vote in the Heisman competition.
To reach females, Suzuki advertises on national cable networks such as A&E, Discovery Channel and the Weather Channel. Maga-zine ads for that target are in Life, Entertainment Weekly and People.
OUTFOXING A CHEETAH
Asher & Partners in Los Angeles created two TV commercials for the Grand Vitara's new ad campaign, which broke this month. Both keep the year-old tag 'Engineered to fit your life.'
The spots are more action-oriented than last year's. They tout the vehicle's performance, rugged construction and four-wheel drive. In one, a woman chased by a cheetah drives a fawn to safety in the jungle.
Of the 36,948 vehicles Suzuki sold through September, 19,981 were Grand Vitaras. In the 1999 model year, Suzuki sales rose by 27 percent to 45,695 from the previous year.
Suzuki wants to have 400 dealers by next year. The company now has about 330 dealers, up from 290 at the end of 1998.