LOS ANGELES - Fed up with being an 'intercept' brand on the highway from the mass market to the rarified air of luxury vehicles, Acura Division is attempting to move upscale.
A marketing campaign starting this week in conjunction with the launch of the 3.2CL coupe will try to reposition Acura as a contender to the likes of Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW and Volvo.
The campaign is the first from agency Rubin Postaer and Associates of Santa Monica, Calif., which took over the account last year. The agency also handles Honda Division.
'We were in the middle and not being successful,' said Rob Alen, Acura director of advertising.
Acura hopes to build on its rising sales from last year, its best performance since 1992 - from which a steady downhill slide occurred as the brand lost its way.
But last year, nearly every dealer was profitable. And last month, Acura sold more cars than Lexus, even with the Integra taken out of the mix.
While treading the middle of the road, there was a desire within Acura to be something more. Owners still referred to their cars as a Legend or Integra and not an Acura.
'I don't think we're in the same realm as other established premium brands,' said Pen Pendleton, account director at Rubin Postaer. 'Acura lacks that driveway status and badge status and sex appeal, that added bit of mystery a premium brand has to offer.'
Although Acura will push the message of sporty performance blended with luxury, gone will be the coldly technical feel of the advertising. Instead, every national Acura ad will revolve around 'road trips,' Pendleton said.
For TV, each ad will start with the turn of an Acura key in the ignition, followed by a trip to a destination that would appeal to that vehicle's target market. The base 3.2CL customer may see Key Largo, Fla., as a hot destination for a road trip, while the 3.2TL crowd might prefer New Orleans. As for Generation X Integra buyers, it's Las Vegas.
Just one vehicle attribute will be hawked per spot. For example, on the road trip to Palm Springs, Calif., owners are told: 'Do nothing. ... Sooner. Introducing the 260 horsepower Acura 3.2CL Type S.'
Print ads will share the 'unified brand architecture' of the road trip campaign, interspersing roadside imagery with car shots, Pendleton said.
Each ad spends as much camera time without the car as with it, while giving enough time to items that make the vehicle worthy of being considered a luxury marque. While hardly the rocks-and-trees feeling of Infiniti's original ads, it is a long way from the racetrack-and-engineering-labs feel of the spots created by departed agency Suissa Miller.
Also, unlike the Honda ads Rubin Postaer creates, the Acura spots use music as a key element, such as Sarah Vaughan's 'Key Largo' to give a soft, moody feel.
'We want to reposition the brand toward performance with emotional connections, without resorting to cliches,' Pendleton said. 'We want Acura to represent the original spirit of the grand touring brand.'
He added that the marketing message of exhilarating luxury performance has been diluted and devalued by the likes of Cadillac attempting to race at Le Mans.
To be sure, Acura has traveled this road before. Several years ago, Acura tried to move upscale under the banner, 'Some Things are Worth the Price.' It failed so badly that Acura was without a replacement creative strategy for nearly a year.
The 3.2CL goes on sale March 1. Print advertising will start appearing this week in 32 titles that include Vanity Fair, Time, GQ, Men's Health, Forbes, Fortune and automobile buff magazines.
TV commercials will appear in most prime-time network slots, along with cable, although the biggest chunk will be spent during the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament and the Academy Awards, Alen said.
Acura executives would not disclose a price tag for the campaign but said spending overall for the year will top 1999. Broadcast media will get 75 percent of the budget, with print getting the remainder, they said.
Other changes also are occurring outside the advertising venue. The Acura nameplate and sign will change from red to a dark blue, and the design of the Acura calipers will be altered slightly.