"We're like ADD ferrets on amphetamines."
That's how Paul Ballew, General Motors' executive director of global market and industry analysis, describes what he calls the auto industry's compulsion to change advertising messages constantly.
At a marketing conference last month, Ballew asserted that consistency of brand message is the key to effective auto advertising. Such consistency is more critical than ever before in today's fractured media environment, he said.
Yet Ballew's company, which spent $2.76 billion last year to advertise in U.S. media, repeatedly has shifted the ad themes of several brands in the past few years.
Buick, Saturn and Pontiac each have had four ad tag lines since 2001. Saab has had three since then.
Other GM brands have displayed more staying power. Cadillac has used "Break Through" since early 2002. Chevrolet has stuck with "An American Revolution" since 2003. GMC's "Professional Grade" has been around since September 2000. Hummer's "Like Nothing Else" has defined the brand since GM launched it in 2001.
In terms of longevity, BMW has been "The Ultimate Driving Machine" since the 1980s. The slogan has persisted with four ad agencies.
Messages with meaning
"If people keep changing tags, they are searching for an identity because clearly they have none," says Charlie Hughes, an automotive consultant in Newport Beach, Calif.
But Hughes says he disagrees with Ballew that consistency is crucial to a successful advertising strategy. "It's not just consistency, because you could be saying the wrong thing consistently," Hughes says.
Instead, he argues, auto advertisers need messages that "mean something" and are linked to the brand. "Every dollar you spend on communications ought to let the world know exactly what you stand for," he says. "If you stand for nothing, every dollar you spend tells the world exactly that."
Mazda North American Operations launched its "zoom-zoom" tag line five years ago. Mazda Motor Corp. has since adopted the line in other markets around the globe.
Jim O'Sullivan, CEO of Mazda North American Operations, says he has no intention of dropping the tag line. It "differentiates us from a lot of brands out there looking at our space" and fits Mazda's lineup, he says.
'Shift' into gear
Steve Wilhite, senior vice president of global marketing for Nissan Motor Co., says the industry is littered with brands that have dropped appropriate ad tags. He calls that approach "brand-dead marketing."
"If you find a communication device that allows you to talk honestly about your brand, you should fight to keep it," Wilhite says.
Nissan introduced its brand tag, "Shift," in Europe in 2002. It soon spread to the United States and Japan. Wilhite calls the tag an "honest representation of who we are and what we stand for as a company."
This month, Nissan updated the tag line to "Shift_2.0" to present its "next generation" of vehicles.
Adds Wilhite: "How do you expect to build any meaningful relationship with consumers if you are constantly changing the meaning of your communications?"
You may e-mail Jean Halliday at [email protected]