The Toyota Venza laps it up
You need only scan the daily headlines to know that General Motors, Chrysler and Ford are going to the dogs. So, it turns out, is their chief rival, Toyota - but in an entirely different way.
As the recession grabbed hold of Americans, the Japanese auto juggernaut was feeling pressure from slowing sales. For the launch of the Venza, its new crossover sedan, it needed a way to wiggle into the wallets of active 40- to 60-year-old auto buyers worried about their dwindling IRAs.
Research into the hearts and minds of this target audience uncovered a valuable nugget: Taking the family dog on an outing is a ray of sunshine for empty nesters in a cloudy economy. And recession or not, these pet lovers refuse to scrimp when it comes to keeping Rover healthy and happy. Secondly, dog owners love to talk to other dog owners and can serve as ready-made brand ambassadors. Toyota got it: The way to a midlifer's heart is through her pooch.
As a result, the company focused about 30-40 percent of the marketing for the $26,000- $29,000 Venza on its dog-friendly features. The car, which is essentially an updated station wagon, is available with a pet ramp, a dog booster seat, dog seat belts and several other doggie accessories. Sound a bit over the top? Consider this: More than half of all dog owners consider their pet's comfort when buying a car, and the Automobile Association of America says that auto pet restraints are already required in several states, and under consideration in many others. "The Venza is designed for people with a fun, on-the-go lifestyle and many of them look to their pets to fill the gap left by their kids," states Bob Zeinstra, Toyota's national product marketing manager. "Venza can accommodate this important family member and traveling companion."
The car was officially introduced to the mass market via a general branding spot by Burrell Communications, Nissan's African American market agency, during the Super Bowl. Then it was time for the dogs to do their thing, in an intense two-month campaign.
A TV ad showing a woman loading two large dogs in the back of her Venza aired on A&E, The Food Network, Discovery and other cable channels. The ad was reinforced with billboards highlighting the Venza's canine considerations.
The new model was also a sponsor of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, which aired on USA Network. Sponsorship included branded short videos on USA Network's site, featuring WKC co-host David Frei giving traveling tips for dogs. Venza also hammered out a brand integration plan with the Emmy-nominated Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan on the National Geographic Channel. The deal includes ads, product placement and custom vignettes on the show.
To tap into the online communities of devoted dog owners, Toyota turned to DogTime Media's site, dogtime.com. Venza-sponsored blogs such as How to Spot a Dog Car highlight the attributes dogs might prefer in a vehicle (sun roofs are a favorite) and share tips for traveling with dogs ("How to treat motion sickness"). DogTime also hosted a Venza-sponsored photo contest calling for pictures of dogs going on road trips.
On the event front, in February and March, a series of "Dog Park Days" was held in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Denver. Venza set up stations at dog parks with an obstacle course for dogs, pet travel safety seminars by Humane Society trainers, and test rides for dogs and their owners. Capping it off were free coffee, donuts and dog treats.
At the events, dog owners could create a screen saver using a white backdrop, clear glass and their dog's tongue. Dogs were videotaped licking the glass. People then got a card with a code number that lets them log into the venzalovesdogs.com site where they can download the video, turn it into a screen saver, post it on YouTube or email it to friends. Action Marketing Group, which handled the dog park promotion, says visitors were most interested in trying out the dog car accessories with their own pets and creating funny screen savers of their dogs.
"Dog lovers are reacting and engaging with the message. They are self-selecting and asking for more information," says John Lisko, executive communications director at Saatchi & Saatchi, Toyota's lead agency. How much that interest translates into dealer visits and actual Venza sales is an open question. Toyota will be studying how many Venza buyers are dog owners to decide whether to extend the campaign past early April, says Cindy Knight, Toyota's PR manager. "Focusing on the passion point of a target audience in this way is new territory for us, and a learning opportunity, so we are studying the response carefully," she says.
For a car brand in a down economy, reaching out to consumers via their attachment to their dogs
is "bold and admirable," says Laurence Knight, marketing consultant and Unilever veteran. "It's a good way to build loyalty to Toyota in the community of dog owners, but the real test is if those consumers get involved. Will they participate with the brand, not just absorb and read content?" he asks. "You'll know it is successful if people look for information online and go back in later and pass content along. Then Toyota becomes an ongoing source for them," he says.
Knight joins other marketing experts in warning that the marketing should take care not to pigeonhole the car too much, so it is seen only as a car for dogs. While dog-friendly is fine, the work doesn't want to be too quirky. "It needs to maintain credibility with the broader market," Knight says.
Another key issue is how much the Toyota brand really understands its boomer constituency. Is the dog connection inspired - or naïve?
Marketing research suggests the answer is the former. Nearly 40 percent of people ages 55-64 own a pet, according to "Turning Silver Into Gold," a treatise about the boomer marketplace by Mary Furlong, a researcher and Santa Clara University professor. She confirms that "empty nesters treat their pets like children, with equal privileges and care." Even the Beverly Hills Hilton is pet-friendly, she says, "and the family retriever now has his own raincoat."
Seeing images of a rambunctious pair of terriers romp into the back of a car has other underlying meanings to this group - it also demonstrates that the car is big enough for a grandchild's stroller or a mother's walker. "Focusing on pets is more heartwarming and aspirational than babysitting or elder care to this age group," says Furlong. "It is absolutely a way to target boomers without saying this is a boomer product," which is essential to a demographic that dislikes being treated as a one-dimensional, generational horde, she adds.
If cute canines work as the glue that binds middle-aged U.S. car buyers to Venza, they might become a permanent part of Toyota's branding arsenal. Dog-conscious car shopping is already alive and well in Japan and is moving into America, with Subaru and Honda already chasing the dog lovers market. In fact, last year dogcars.com anointed the Honda Element SUV, Toyota's big competitor, as the first-ever "DogCar of the Year," thanks to its easy-to-clean interior and anti-noseprint windows. Woof.