DETROIT -- Question: How do you launch a big ad campaign for sexy sports car in the teeth of a recession? Answer: You don't.
The pony car is back, as each of Detroit's three carmakers revs up an entry in the segment for the first time in decades.
General Motors is bringing back the Chevrolet Camaro, which it discontinued in 2002;
Chrysler revived the Dodge Challenger last fall after a nearly 35-year absence and is now taking orders for the two-door coupe in the classic B5 Blue color;
Ford Motor Co., which started the pony-car craze in 1964 with the Mustang, launches the newest version of the coupe in April.
Although the redone versions of the classic cars are getting good reviews from auto-buff books and car enthusiasts -- not to mention much better fuel efficiency than the classic versions -- the timing occurs as the industry tries to pull out of its worst sales year in decades. As a result, there won't be high-profile national TV blitzes for the cars from Chevy or Dodge, which will rely more on nontraditional media.
Chevrolet, which started shipping the 2010-model Camaro to dealerships this week, activated a new microsite for the car March 16 at chevy.com/allnewcamaro. Much of the Camaro's launch will be online, backed by what a spokesman called a "pretty good-size digital play," which will start hitting in April.
In addition, Chevrolet will back the new Camaro in co-branded ads for the movie "Transformer: Revenge of the Fallen," arriving June 24 in theaters and featuring the return of the "Bumble Bee" yellow Camaro character, the spokesman said. Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., handles Camaro; the Chevy spokesman said the agency worked with Publicis Groupe's Digitas for the online work.
Ford teamed with the nonprofit Mustang Club of America for a long weekend of events in Birmingham, Ala., to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the pony car starting April 16. Ford Racing also linked up with Miller Motorsports Park to develop a new racing series with Mustangs that will kick off there, complimented by a street party, a driving cruise for Mustang owners and a banquet.
Too early to discuss Mustang launch
Ford has been beating the drums for the 2010-model Mustang since last summer, when it opened an online contest seeking "Mustang Stories." The automaker plans a "significant program" to hail the Mustang's arrival, said an executive close to the matter, but a spokesman said it's too early to discuss the launch program. WPP's Team Detroit handles Ford; Wunderman did the digital work.
Mike Accavitti, director-Dodge marketing, said the Challenger appears with other Dodge models in the TV spot that regional dealer ad groups are currently airing, but there are no dedicated ads for the car.
He said the automaker plans to keep the car fresh by introducing special, limited-edition colors or racing-stripe packages. "We have a cadence of special, throwback colors from the '70s" that Dodge will be rolling out, Accavitti said.
He figures the Challenger will get a boost from consumers also shopping for the Camaro. He doesn't expect Chevrolet to bite into Challenger sales, at least for the first two months it's on sale, because loyal Camaro fans will be the early buyers. "We'll see a battleground after that," he said. "After 35 years, the three pony cars are back."
Dodge's digital account is handled by Omnicom Group's Organic, with Shift Digital managing retail and online lead activities. BBDO Detroit, Troy, Mich., handles creative for other mediums.
Dodge sold 17,423 Challengers last year and 6,040 in the first two months of 2009. Ford sold 91,251 Mustangs last year and 5,934 in the first two months of 2009. Camaro's peak year was 1979 with 282,000 units sold.
Sales in category way down
U.S. sales across the entire mid-size sporty coupe segment last year only tallied 150,000 units, said Jeff Schuster, executive director-forecasting at consultant J.D. Power & Associates. That compares to some 575,000 units sold in 1995, or 3.9 percent of all vehicles sold that year. J.D. Power projects the tally for the coupe category next year will total just more than 200,000 units, or 1.7 percent of all new vehicles sold.
"There's been a shift in consumers' taste, so the larger, sporty, two-door vehicles have fallen out of favor," said Mr. Schuster. "But these two models are more practical than their predecessors."
The 2010 Camaro starts at $22,995 and the 2010 Mustang at $20,995, but the latter's performance GT500 convertible version starts at $51,225. The Challenger starts at $22,545 but the souped-up R/T Classic version that went on sale early this year starts at $34,005.