Monday, July 27, 2009
Once the crown jewel of the General Motors Corp. (GM), the Oldsmobile division had fallen on hard times. As a result, GM went so far as to contemplate terminating the venerable Oldsmobile nameplate, but it opted to reinvent the division instead. Beginning in 1994 Oldsmobile introduced new cars designed to appeal to younger consumers and help win back sales from competitors. Moreover, GM designated Oldsmobile as its import-fighting wing. To this end Oldsmobile created the Alero, a compact car designed to take on such best-sellers as Honda Motor Co.’s Accord and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Camry. With a planned launch date of September 1, 1998, Oldsmobile turned to its longtime ad agency, the Leo Burnett Company, to create a campaign that would generate excitement about the Alero. For this $80 million kickoff campaign, Oldsmobile adopted the tagline ‘‘Start Something.’’ The commercials were unlike anything Oldsmobile had ever done before. In both the 15-second teaser commercials (which debuted August 3, 1998) and the 30-second commercials (which began on September 1), quick-cutting images were set to a pulsing electronic sound track, scenes of screaming teenagers were interspersed with shots of the Alero, and red ovals spelled out such commands as ‘‘Start to Scream’’ and ‘‘Stop Commuting. Start Driving.’’ Every spot closed with the ‘‘Start Something’’ moniker. Leo Burnett also created print pieces and savvy Internet ads. The Alero and its supporting marketing campaign were deemed a success by General Motors executives as well as industry insiders. The campaign also managed to reach its target audience of younger consumers. GM predicted that 1999 sales of the Alero would reach or surpass 100,000 vehicles. Based on its success, the campaign was continued in 1999 and expanded to include the entire Oldsmobile line of vehicles. Early in 2000 the tagline ‘‘Start Something’’ was modified depending on which vehicle was being promoted in the specific spot. The initial success of the Alero was brief, however, and by the end of 2000 Oldsmobile sales were again on the decline. In December 2000 GM announced that it was ceasing production of Oldsmobiles.
Oldsmobile had once been perceived as a ‘‘status’’ car, a high-powered American car for the stylish executive with a family, said an article in the July 15, 1991, Adweek. Between 1983 and 1986 the division sold more than one million cars per year. In 1987, however, Oldsmobile’s fortunes waned. GM’s policy of ‘‘badge engineering’’ resulted in Oldsmobile’s vehicles becoming indistinguishable from other GM lines, diluting the brand’s cachet. In addition, the company was slow to introduce new products that kept up with consumers’ tastes. Although Oldsmobile’s 1988 campaign, ‘‘This Is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile! This Is a New Generation of Olds,’’ was lauded by ad critics and popular with consumers, it did little to bolster the brand’s sinking sales. By 1996 Oldsmobile’s share of the U.S. car market had reached an all-time low of 2.2 percent (down from its 1995 share of 2.6 percent). Its 1996 sales were 14.5 percent lower than in 1995. According to Fortune magazine, Oldsmobile’s loyal customers were aging and had either ‘‘died or defected to Buick.’’
The division took stock of its situation in the mid-1990s and committed itself to revamping its entire product line. In 1994 Oldsmobile debuted the Aurora, which served as ‘‘the centerpiece of [the company’s] strategy to boost sagging sales by attracting buyers younger than its traditional sixty-something crowd,’’ noted USA Today. The redesigned Bravada sport-utility vehicle (model year 1996), the Silhouette and Cutlass (1997), and the Intrigue (1997) followed. So adamant was Oldsmobile to reach younger drivers that in 1997 it teamed up with The X-Files, a show that had a cultlike following among Generation Xers, for a major promotion. Nevertheless, Oldsmobile had no entry-level car that could draw consumers into the Oldsmobile line, so as the entire Oldsmobile line struggled to shed its geriatric image, Alero was pegged as the division’s entry-level vehicle.
Priced between $17,500 and $22,000, the Alero was designated as the entry-level vehicle of the Oldsmobile line. The division intended it to be a high-volume car and set a prelaunch goal for Alero of eventually accounting for 40 percent of Oldsmobile’s sales. ‘‘Start Something’’ was grounded in the premise that the bulk of the consumers who would ultimately drive these sales would be those between the ages of 30 and 50. Within this broad demographic group, Oldsmobile focused on ‘‘well-educated singles or young families with children,’’ according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The division’s lingering reputation for ‘‘fogey-mobiles’’ made this a challenging audience to win over. Nevertheless, it was an important segment for Oldsmobile to capture. The grail for all car companies was to have consumers ‘‘grow’’ within a line of cars—to start with low-end vehicles and progress to ever-more expensive cars as they became older and wealthier. Market research had shown that brand allegiances were often formed early and tended to be long lasting. If Oldsmobile were to survive, it had to introduce consumers to its line.
To indicate that the Alero represented a new direction for Oldsmobile, Leo Burnett crafted a campaign that was meant to stand out from the array of other car commercials and seize viewers’ attention for itself. ‘‘At first glance, it doesn’t look like car advertising—it’s not supposed to,’’ the division explained in an August 26, 1998, press release. To add to the aura of uniqueness, Oldsmobile opted not to use actors in the commercials. ‘‘These are real people with real lives and passions. They closely reflect the attitude and character of the Alero,’’ said Mike Sands, Oldsmobile’s director of advertising. Moreover, the commercials had a high-energy, youthful feeling. Images of children, teens at a concert, a martial artist, and a man jumping off a mountain into the snow were the core of the spots. The sound track was modern and pulsing, and the quick-cutting cinematography resembled a music video more than a standard car commercial. ‘‘We want people who are willing to try something new,’’ Sands told Automotive News. But Oldsmobile was careful not to position itself too far outside the mainstream. The company wanted women to account for 50 percent of its sales, and conventional wisdom held that this demographic responded well to family-oriented messages. As a result, the division included upbeat domestic scenes in many of its ads. ‘‘The spots are trying to communicate a certain way of thinking and living,’’ a Leo Burnett spokesperson told Adweek. ‘‘[The campaign] speaks to a consumer set that is very new to Oldsmobile.’’
Oldsmobile pitched the Alero not only to younger drivers but also to minority groups, most notably Hispanics and African-Americans. The U.S. Census predicted that Hispanics would account for 42 percent of America’s population growth between 1998 and 2008, while only 2.3 percent of Oldsmobile’s 1997 sales had come from Hispanics. African-Americans were also underrepresented among Oldsmobile consumers. ‘‘There is a huge potential for the Alero to gain Hispanic and African-American customers who had never before considered buying an Oldsmobile,’’ Oldsmobile’s brand manager Bob Clark explained to Automotive News in September 1998. In its bid to pitch Alero to Hispanic and African-American consumers, Oldsmobile created separate ads that targeted these distinct communities. For instance, Alero’s Hispanic-oriented advertising used the tagline ‘‘Vivelo,’’ which meant ‘‘To Live,’’ because ‘‘Start Something’’ translated poorly.
As GM’s ‘‘import-fighting’’ line, Oldsmobile wanted the Alero to compete against comparable compact sedans by the established import players—the Honda Accord, the Toyota Camry, the Nissan Altima, and the Mazda 626. Alero’s task was a difficult one because it involved ‘‘mak[ing] conquest sales in a shrinking market segment,’’ according to Automotive News. Sales in the lower midrange segment that Alero sought to enter had seen shrinking sales, as increasing numbers of consumers bought sport-utility vehicles and other light trucks instead of cars. It was a highly competitive market, and Alero’s rivals conducted savvy campaigns designed to keep their share of the market. Claiming converts would be a challenge. Foremost among the Alero’s rivals was the Toyota Camry, which was the best-selling car in the United States in both 1997 and 1998. Since fall 1997 Toyota’s ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, had advertised the Camry as part of the company’s overall branding campaign: ‘‘Everyday People.’’ The Camry figured prominently in these print and television spots that showed the versatility and practicality of Toyota. Toyota’s overall share of the U.S. market grew from 8.1 percent in 1997 to 8.7 percent in 1998. The Honda Accord was the second-best-selling car in the United States in 1997 and 1998. For model year 1998 Honda had launched a completely redesigned Accord. Spots by Rubin Postaer & Associates used the tagline ‘‘An Accord Like No Other’’ to tout the Accord’s roomier interior, performance, and quiet engine. This $100 million campaign ‘‘was almost paying homage to the Accord over the past 22 years,’’ a Honda spokesperson told Advertising Age. In October 1998 Honda switched strategies with two new national Accord commercials (also by Rubin Postaer) that did not use ‘‘An Accord Like No Other.’’ Instead the spots presented the Accord not just ‘‘as a car you need,’’ but more as ‘‘a car you want,’’ a Honda representative explained in the October 5, 1998, issue of Advertising Age. In one a frazzled woman left an airport, and, by using her remote-control key, was able to freeze all action around her until she reached her Accord. The tagline proclaimed, ‘‘It’s not just a car. It’s a state of mind.’’ Honda’s overall share of the U.S. car market rose from 6.2 percent in 1997 to 6.5 percent in 1998.
Oldsmobile also viewed the Mazda 626 and the Nissan Altima as direct competitors of the Alero. Since spring 1998 Mazda, which controlled a 1.5 percent share of the U.S. car market, had used the slogan ‘‘Get In. Be Moved.’’ in advertising for all its offerings. As part of this campaign, Mazda’s ad agency, W.B. Doner & Co., created a commercial for the 626 that sought to build a more energetic and sophisticated image for the car. Set to David Bowie’s song ‘‘Rebel Rebel,’’ the commercial portrayed an attractive woman driving across town in her 626. She stopped at a sign announcing a PTA meeting and walked inside carrying a cake. ‘‘Do not go gentle into that good PTA meeting,’’ the voice-over intoned, in a spoof on Dylan Thomas’s famous poem, ‘‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.’’ Mazda ran a similar commercial for the 626 in May 1999. Nissan, whose share of the U.S. car market was an impressive 4.0 percent, pulled the plug on its ‘‘Enjoy the Ride’’ branding campaign in 1998 and initiated more product-specific spots that failed to have their desired effect. The company consequently inaugurated a new branding campaign in 1999 with the tagline ‘‘Driven.’’
‘‘Start Something’’ was designed to generate excitement for the launch of the Oldsmobile Alero. Just as the component advertisements strove to convey the car’s fun-to-drive and distinct image, Oldsmobile’s marketing efforts attempted to make the Alero’s introduction highly visible to the car’s target audience. ‘‘We really need to establish this vehicle with a big splash,’’ Oldsmobile’s Sand was quoted in the August 17, 1998, Adweek. The teaser commercials were an essential component of this plan. Even before the Alero had arrived at dealers, these 15-second spots ‘‘offer[ed] more of a sneak preview than a full disclosure of what l[ay] ahead,’’ Oldsmobile explained in a press release. By the time the full 30-second spots aired on September 1, Oldsmobile had piqued viewers’ curiosity. Print ads ran in major monthly magazines and newsweeklies after September 1. Oldsmobile employed atypical media strategies to ensure that the Alero received a considerable amount of attention. The Internet figured prominently in the ‘‘Start Something’’ campaign. According to Brandweek, the Internet was the ‘‘centerpiece of its media blitz.’’ In addition to scores of banner ads displayed on popular websites, Oldsmobile even offered test drives at home for consumers who signed up online. Incorporating the Internet into its marketing venues was a logical choice for Oldsmobile. ‘‘We think the Internet is used by very youthful, very technologically savvy consumers who are similar to the consumer profile that we want to attract with the Alero,’’ Sands told Automotive News. To raise the Alero’s profile further, Oldsmobile announced its ‘‘Start Something Tuesdays on ABC Sweepstakes’’ in August 1998. This promotional tie-in with ABC’s Tuesday evening prime-time lineup encouraged viewers to enter a sweepstakes in which 200 Aleros would be awarded.
Because Oldsmobile included Hispanic and African-American consumers in its target audience, the division used slightly different methods to reach these groups. For instance, Alero advertisements bearing the ‘‘Vivelo’’ tagline appeared in national Hispanic magazines and on Spanish-speaking networks. Oldsmobile concentrated its Hispanic-oriented efforts on large cities such as Los Angeles and Miami, as well as in regions with substantial Hispanic populations, such as Texas and the Southwest. GM declared October 13, 1998, to be ‘‘GM Hispanic Awareness Day.’’ At the company’s Miami symposium that day, a GM executive said, ‘‘I think the Alero speaks volumes about our commitment to, and expansion into, the Hispanic community.’’
In 1999 GM expanded the ‘‘Start Something’’ campaign to encompass all of its Oldsmobile vehicles in what company executives described in Advertising Age as a ‘‘divisional branding campaign,’’ or ‘‘divisional effort.’’ Karen Francis, Oldsmobile’s general marketing manager, told Advertising Age that in 1999 Alero’s marketing tagline, ‘‘Start Something,’’ was being moved to all Oldsmobile vehicle models and that the expanded campaign would kick off with television spots during the 1999 Super Bowl. A new campaign to support the introduction of the Oldsmobile Aurora sedan began in April 2000; it featured the ‘‘Start Something’’ theme, but with a subtle twist. Francis explained to Advertising Age that each vehicle in the Oldsmobile line would have a different word after ‘‘Start.’’ For the Aurora the tagline was ‘‘Start Obsessing,’’ and the Alero’s modified tagline was ‘‘Start Connecting.’’ The strategy took a different spin in late 2000 when GM announced that the redesigned Bravada sport-utility vehicle would be the last vehicle released under the Oldsmobile brand. Leo Burnett created just one 30-second TV spot supporting Bravada’s launch; it was scheduled to appear on syndicated cable for three weeks followed by a run during the ‘‘March Madness’’ basketball coverage. The spot featured a Bravada racing down a road with a herd of wild horses running alongside it. A voice-over stated, ‘‘A new beast on the road.’’
Both GM officials and industry analysts heralded the Alero’s launch as a success. Although GM’s overall 1998 performance was sluggish, the Wall Street Journal called the Oldsmobile division GM’s ‘‘one bright spot’’ and stressed the importance of the Alero to Oldsmobile’s positive results. Sands informed the January 11, 1999, Adweek that the Alero campaign was the first Oldsmobile effort that had ‘‘truly resonated’’ with this younger target audience. ‘‘It was like a light bulb went off in [consumer’s heads] that Oldsmobile had changed,’’ he exclaimed. An Oldsmobile dealer further emphasized the division’s turnaround to Automotive News on February 15, 1999:
‘‘We’re attracting non-Oldsmobile owners into the showrooms to buy Oldsmobiles.’’ The company predicted 1999 sales of the Alero to exceed 100,000. The Alero’s debut was made all the more impressive by the challenges it overcame. In June 1998 a labor dispute led to strikes at major GM production facilities, which delayed the Alero’s initial release. Some dealers and analysts therefore predicted a tepid reception for the car. ‘‘We’ve got a lot of advertising support and market interest generated and now people come in the door and there’s nothing to show them,’’ one dealer complained to the Capital Times. But these fears proved to be overblown.
Following a brief rise on the crest of the ‘‘Start Something’’ campaign, in December 2000 Oldsmobile sales took a disappointing nosedive. GM executives soon announced that the entire Oldsmobile line would be phased out. The launch of the redesigned Bravada sport-utility vehicle in 2001 would be the brand’s swan song. According to an Advertising Age report, Oldsmobile’s plans for a 2001 first-quarter divisional branding campaign were canceled. ‘‘Obviously, we’re not into brand building, we’re into brand selling,’’ a GM spokesman said. Further, amidst complaints from Oldsmobile dealers that the advertising failed to clarify fully the brand’s new positioning, the unit’s general manager Karen Francis and advertising director Mike Sands both resigned, and Oldsmobile conducted an agency review. Included in the review were incumbent Leo Burnett; McCann-Erickson Worldwide, which was the agency for the Buick line; and E. Morris Communications, the agency handling Oldsmobile’s African-American advertising. Following the review Leo Burnett retained the account and created the final advertising for Oldsmobile. In 2004 the last new Oldsmobile rolled off the assembly line.