In 1992, Honda Division was seeking ways to reverse a sales slide on its blue-chip car, the Accord.
Advertising agency Rubin Postaer & Associates conducted focus groups and discovered that some consumers were unwilling to buy Japanese cars unless they were built in the United States. They were unaware that Honda built Accords and Civics in Ohio and had been doing so for nearly a decade.
So Honda quickly shifted much of its advertising dollars to focus on its U.S. plants and the cars it was building in this country.
Since that time, Accord and Civic sales have soared, and Honda no longer has to focus on the "Made in America" theme.
But whether the marketing message is patriotic or humorous, Honda Division and its ad agency have never wavered from one key theme.
"We tend to be, first, consistent," says Thomas Elliott, executive vice president, automobile operations at American Honda Motor Co. Inc.
Elliott, who has been with the company for 34 years, says the division has had the same ad agency since 1974 and the same message.
"Our image has been very strong in dependability, quality and reliability, and we also have a good environmental image," he says. "These are things that people think about with Honda; this has been our story."
Jim Wangers, president of Jim Wangers Productions Inc., an automotive consulting firm in Vista, Calif., agrees that Honda has primarily stuck to its original image over the years - "low-priced, well-equipped, quality vehicles."
He says Honda had momentum with its motorcycles, helped by the "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda" advertising campaign, and even had a hit song about its motorcyles by the musical group the Hondels.
"Honda took the tough-guy image out of motorcyles and portrayed them as trendy and fun to drive," Wangers says. "That gave Honda prestige and put their motorcycles in youths' minds the same way the muscle cars did. So when Honda got into the car business, people were ready for them."
Wangers says Honda's first car in the United States, the 600 in 1970, was thought of as primitive and a joke. But he says the next car, the two-door Accord, hit the market by storm, even though the company's image was tarnished when some of the cars rusted in snow-belt areas.
"But it was well introduced as low-cost, fun to drive and well equipped, and it did not affect the company's image in places like California" where they did not rust, Wangers says. And the Accord had a good warranty to satisfy Rust Belt customers, he says.
"The greatest thing Honda has going is image," Wangers says. "It has lost a little charm because the prices have gone up. That's probably because they were dumping them at first. The company may also lose some of its appeal if it doesn't replace the Civic soon."
Elliott agrees that the Accord made Honda's image in the United States.
"But as we've added light trucks, we have had to expand our image," he says. "Now we're more than just the Accord. People never thought of Honda as a maker of light trucks."
For example, Elliott says the automaker will have to spend a lot of money to tell people about its first pickup, which goes on sale next spring.
"We won't get die-hard truck loyalists," he says. "It may be people getting their first truck."
Studies show that even Honda's popular Odyssey minivan has only a 50 percent awareness rate among consumers, well below the figure for Dodge and Chrysler vans, Elliott says.
"We spend a lot of money, but our first focus is to create awareness," he says. Sometimes we have humor, but we're not chest beaters. We don't beat the drums about the features and prices. We try to give information in a factual way. We're trying to create awareness of a category. We can't live forever on Honda loyalists."
Thomas Elliott: "Our image has been very strong in dependability, quality and reliability." PHOTO: JOE WILSSENS
Without giving figures, Elliott says Honda's marketing budget will continue to escalate. According to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR in New York, Honda Division spent $433.5 million on measured media in 2003 vs. $454.3 million in 2002.
"It's very competitive. You have to spend money," Elliott says. "A lot of people, including us, are moving away from broadcast network TV because we are spending more and getting less."
He says Honda is moving more toward cable TV and print where the division can be more focused, but he says the marketing message will stay consistent.
It's a message that need not change, says Jim Hossack, vice president of AutoPacific Inc., in Santa Ana, Calif.
"Marketing is a lot easier with a great fleet of cars and trucks," Hossack says. "Honda emphasizes the product. In the future, I think they'll continue to be good. I can see no real trouble. They'll be fine."