In the 1990s Chrysler Corporation ran a prolonged branding campaign for its four-wheel-drive Jeeps. Although Jeep was one of the oldest and best-known sport utility brands in the United States, it had encountered intense competition as the popularity of four-wheel-drive automobiles (dubbed ‘‘sport utility vehicles,’’ or SUVs) exploded among American consumers. In order to bolster the Jeep brand, Chrysler directed the advertising agency Bozell Worldwide, Inc. to create a television advertising campaign for Jeep’s product line: the Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Cherokee, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Three of the ads, ‘‘Snow Covered,’’ ‘‘El Toro,’’ and ‘‘Quicksand,’’ were designed not only to elevate sales but also to distinguish Jeep from the 40-odd other models of SUVs that were flooding the market and vying for consumers’ new car dollars.
To reach its upscale target market, Jeep chose to run its ads primarily during highly rated, prime-time network television shows and special events. ‘‘Snow Covered,’’ ‘‘El Toro,’’ and ‘‘Quicksand’’ each used a combination of humor and fantasy to catch viewers’ attention, and each was an element of what Bozell’s managing partner and creative director Bill Morden termed ‘‘the consistent, constant visual of building the brand.’’ ‘‘Snow Covered,’’ a 60-second spot that first aired during the 1994 Winter Olympics, had, according to USA Today, ‘‘one of the longest runs of any TV ad produced by a car company.’’ The commercial featured a Jeep burrowing under a deep blanket of snow as an arresting way of conveying the power and tenacity of the vehicle. Interestingly, the ad did not picture an actual Jeep model. The 30-second ‘‘Quicksand,’’ which debuted in September 1995, showed a Jeep Grand Cherokee trapped in a tropical landscape by a massive water buffalo that refuses to move out of the way. After the car sinks down into a mire of quicksand, the buffalo ambles away. The Jeep then drives itself up out of the muck and goes on its way. ‘‘El Toro,’’ another 30-second spot, first aired in September 1996. It depicts the romantic attraction of two animals for a bright red Jeep Grand Cherokee. The car is first pursued by a bull and drives into a river to escape. As the car emerges, dirty, muddy, and dripping, it is chased by a smitten pig.
Although Jeep could not draw a direct correlation between the television commercials and its sales figures, it pronounced itself pleased with the results of the campaign. Jeep sales rose during the period the ads were being broadcast, and polls demonstrated their popularity with consumers. In addition, the ads won a number of advertising awards, generating further publicity for Jeep and its vehicles.
The Jeep brand originated during World War II when the U.S. Army required a rugged vehicle that could master off-road terrain and the brutal conditions of battle. Partly because of Jeep’s popularity among American GIs, the American Motor Corporation continued to produce the sturdy car after the war. Seemingly half-car and half-truck, the vehicle with its four-wheel-drive capacity had a reputation for being able to go anywhere. Jeep never lost the macho image it garnered during the war. It was a car for the outdoors, for the rugged individual, for the free spirit. In the 1980s, however, a growing market for ‘‘passenger-friendly’’ four-wheeldrive vehicles developed. Drivers wanted the robust look and image of a four-wheel drive outside but the comfort and smoothness of a sedan inside. Jeep responded by shifting its product line, discontinuing some models, and introducing new ones to conform to this trend. Jeep Cherokee first came on the market in 1984 and quickly attained great popularity. Jeep Wrangler, a smaller and more economically-priced model, appeared in 1986. The following year Chrysler Corporation acquired the American Motor Corporation and incorporated Jeep into its new Jeep/Eagle division. In 1993 Chrysler launched the Jeep Grand Cherokee, a luxurious and premium-priced four-wheel-drive vehicle, with a slew of amenities. By the mid-1990s these three models made up the whole of Jeep’s product line. The Wrangler, which in 1997 cost about $13,000, appealed to a younger market. The Cherokee, on the other hand, suited a slightly older consumer who might need more space for a growing family. Finally, the Grand Cherokee, with optional leather seats, was the four-wheel-drive vehicle for the affluent consumer who appreciated the luxury of the model but also sought the cachet of the Jeep brand.
Jeep’s product line was evolving in tune with the American car market. By 1997 pickup trucks, SUVs, and minivans—all three were termed ‘‘light trucks’’—accounted for one out of every two vehicles sold in the United States. Indeed, the sale of sport utility vehicles increased 74 percent in 1997 alone. According to the London Independent, analysts expected SUV sales to rise an additional 35 percent by 2006. Even more noteworthy was the fact that the fastest growing sector of this market was for the so-called luxury SUVs, which included the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The company’s website explained the allure: ‘‘This vehicle is proof you can have a true off-road vehicle without giving up . . . luxuries and amenities.’’
The higher-end sport utility vehicles appealed to a far different group of consumers than the early Jeep models: the average Jeep Grand Cherokee buyer was 44-years old. Advertising Age declared that the success of the car was ‘‘largely due to the acceptance of upscale SUVs by buyers in their forties.’’ The vast majority of sport utility vehicle drivers no longer even took their cars off-road. Rather, the appeal of the SUVs was due more to the perception that they were safer than smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Not only were SUVs a great deal larger and heavier (they weighed about 5,000 pounds) than the average car, they also afforded the driver a clearer view of the road because they were so tall. As The Fort Worth Star-Telegram asserted, ‘‘Sport utility vehicles appeal to an aging population desperately seeking security at a time of corporate downsizing, family breakups, and crime.’’ Moreover, by providing more cargo and passenger space, SUVs were ideal for families.
But more than anything else, an SUV-like Jeep provided a crucial intangible factor—image. A spokesperson for Mercedes-Benz told the London Independent that SUVs were ‘‘an expression of individuality, lifestyle, and an active enjoyment of life.’’ Both men and women enjoyed the sense of power and hearty individualism that Jeep seemed to convey.
Jeep’s advertising sought to reinforce that image. ‘‘Snow Covered,’’ which did not portray an actual Jeep model, was solely a brand-building campaign. ‘‘Quicksand’’ and ‘‘El Toro’’ specifically touted the Grand Cherokee, but Bozell’s Morden emphasized that ‘‘every ad we do is a deposit in that brand equity bank.’’ According to USA Today, the three spots used fantasy and humor ‘‘to appeal to the company’s yuppie target.’’ The commercials reached out to their target not only through humor but also through their narrative structure. Unlike the ‘‘standard’’ car commercial, the Jeep spots were not catalogs of features. Instead, they told a story that was intended to captivate the audience and communicate to them the values and nature of the brand. Each of the three spots played on key themes: Jeep’s ability to bring the driver into nature; to afford the driver the ‘‘reach’’ to go anywhere and do anything in a Jeep; and to give the driver the mastery and capability the brand promised. ‘‘Quicksand’’ and ‘‘El Toro’’ were specifically designed to remind the viewer that the Grand Cherokee was not just another luxury car. According to Morden, the commercials told their target audience that ‘‘underneath all the leather, it’s still a Jeep.’’
Jeep was not the only brand of sport utility vehicle trying to attract the wealthy yuppie with the soul of an adventurer. In fact, the SUV segment of the auto industry had become one of the most crowded. The number of SUV models surged from 21 in 1987 to nearly 50 ten years later. All told, by 1997 SUV sales accounted for 15 percent of total new car sales. ‘‘When we created ‘Snow Covered’ in 1994 we pretty much stood alone,’’ said Bill Morden. ‘‘But now there are 60 or 70 commercials a week trying to do the same thing as us.’’ Jeep’s competition encroached on both the high and low ends of the SUV sector. Toyota’s Land Cruiser and 4Runner, Chevrolet’s Suburban, Land Rover, Range Rover, Mercedes-Benz’s M-Class, Lexus’s RX300, and Lincoln-Mercury’s Mountaineer presented fierce competition for the more upscale new car buyer Jeep sought to attract to its Grand Cherokee. On the other end of the spectrum, Toyota’s RAV4, Geo’s Tracker, Suzuki’s Samurai, and Mitsubishi’s Montero threatened to encroach on the less affluent, younger crowd who had previously coveted the Jeep brand and purchased the more affordable Wrangler or Cherokee. By 1996 the Ford Explorer had risen to become the best-selling sport utility vehicle with an 18.8 percent market share. The Grand Cherokee was second, with 13 percent. Cherokee and Wrangler were fourth and ninth, respectively, with 6.9 percent and 3.8 percent.
Jeep’s competitors also initiated their own bigbudget campaigns. Lexus launched a campaign for its 1999 RX300 that used the tag line, ‘‘It’s not just another sport utility. It’s like no other vehicle on earth.’’ Lexus, like Jeep’s Grand Cherokee, targeted consumers in their early 40s. Both Ford and Mercury’s marketing efforts for the Explorer and the Mountaineer stressed the versatility and practicality of the vehicles. Ford spent an estimated $44.3 million advertising the Explorer and Expedition in 1996, while Toyota devoted $37.7 million to the 4Runner. In an effort to prevail in this fiercely competitive market, however, Jeep outspent its competitors by a substantial margin. In 1996 Chrysler spent $76.3 million marketing the Grand Cherokee, as well as an additional $42.5 million on the Cherokee and $21.6 million on the Wrangler.
As the self-proclaimed leader in the SUV sector, Jeep shied away from overtly acknowledging its numerous competitors in the ads. ‘‘We seldom, if ever, compare ourselves specifically to other brands,’’ Morden said. Instead, Bozell created commercials that attempted to connect consumers with the benefits of the brand on a more emotional level. ‘‘It’s all personality,’’ Gary Topolewski, executive creative director and managing partner at Bozell, told Adweek. ‘‘Cars are an emotional purchase. Bottom line, you want to feel good about the car you’re driving.’’ Few Jeep spots featured the aptly named ‘‘laundry list of features.’’ Instead, Jeep used the narrative style ads in order to distinguish itself from other SUV campaigns.
Jeep chose to bring its message to a more ‘‘upscale, forward-thinking audience,’’ said Morden. In order to do so, the company pinpointed select prime-time television shows to carry the ads. ‘‘Snow Covered’’ aired on such programs as the 1994 Winter Olympics and the 1997 Aloha Bowl. ‘‘Quicksand’’ was seen on shows such as ABC’s 20/20 and NBC’s National Geographic, as well as during Fox Network’s broadcasts of the National Hockey League’s conference semifinals and finals and NBC’s airings of the National Basketball Association’s play-off games. ‘‘El Toro’’ ran during popular shows like Mad About You, Murder One, and Star Trek Voyager, as well as on NBC’s broadcasts of National Football League games.
‘‘Snow Covered,’’ ‘‘Quicksand,’’ and ‘‘El Toro’’ won the admiration of the advertising industry. In 1994 ‘‘Snow Covered’’ won the coveted Grand Prix Award at the Cannes Festival. Analysts lauded both Jeep and Bozell for the witty and innovative ads. Certainly the polished ads helped to bolster Jeep’s image as the preeminent SUV on the market. As USA Today commented, ‘‘Innovative ads get noticed.’’
Although Bozell was quick to assert that drawing a direct correlation between sales figures and specific ads was difficult at best, Morden did assert that ‘‘these spots continued to fit Jeep products into the brand. People saw them as being very positive to the brand’s identity.’’ Jeep sales soared 13 percent the year Jeep took home the Grand Prix for the spot. In addition, USA Today ’s Ad Track consumers survey revealed that it ranked as one of the ten best-liked ads of 1997; thereby proving its popularity.