Honda's Accavitti Explains Bruce Willis, Hugs, Safety

Honda’s Super Bowl Hugfest campaign via agency of record RPA features Bruce Willis asking viewers to give hugs all around. But the message isn't really about bromance as a virtue, but on safety as a point of leadership for Honda. Willis explains the connection and we see Honda’s lineup, too. And that’s something Honda is going to be talking about a lot this year. Why? Well, in spite of the cool factor of telematics and infotainment and performance and all of the sexy attributes that make for entertaining tentpole event advertising, consumers still care a lot about it. 

Mike Accavitti, SVP of automotive operations at the Torrance, Calif.-based American Honda, talks to Marketing Daily about why Honda needs to hammer that message home, and why the automaker used a Hollywood tough guy to hit the nail on the head. 

Q: Why the focus on Safety? Isn’t that table stakes now for the category?

A: Safety is important for us, and it's an important consideration for most customers. We actually over-index for this -- it matters more to a Honda customer than to the average person. But we have not been a company that stands on a mountain and beats its chest. We have always let the product speak for itself. But now we find in this competitive environment that if we don't speak up, we won't get the credit. We are leaders in safety, so this year we are going to be telling that story more frequently and louder. 

Q: What is the genesis of this campaign?

A: Safety has become a kind of alphabet soup over messages about who gets five-star ratings, and which safety tests matter. For consumers, it’s just confusing. My brief to my agency was that I wanted to make a very simple statement to clarify Honda's position in consumers’ minds. It's very focused and a clear statement that Honda builds more top safety-rated vehicles than any other brand. So while others may talk about what they do, we wanted to convey our leadership. We also wanted to point out that our production is in the U.S., and that 90% of North American market cars are produced here. 

Q: Were you looking at other ways of conveying that message?

A: The agency came back with several alternatives, but we really liked the idea of a spokesman talking to the camera sincerely. During this big event where everyone is generally going over the top, we wanted to do it this way: very simple, very direct.

Q: Why Bruce Willis? He's not exactly what you'd think of for safety and hugging, and he says as much in the ad!

A: His name came up early and we felt it was a great fit because, yes, when you think of him, the first thing that comes to mind isn't a hug. It's kind of a redirect; a surprise. We'd be expecting him to be hanging from helicopter, or from a burning building. Instead, here's this very sincere message. When his name came up, there was no debate.  

Q: Tell me about the social media support. Anyone who goes to see the ad on YouTube will see a lot of videos for the campaign, with Willis in the same setup.

A: Social media is allowing people to go to a Super Bowl party even if they are sitting in a room by themselves. We see this in all big events. We understand second- and third-screen activity, so we tailored the campaign to be shareable with interesting content before the spot aired. We tweeted out real-time reactions to things going on the field, and included videos of Bruce making comments, like: "Holding, not so good on the field, but a hug is always a good idea." We made 20 of those short videos to run [on social media] during the game, and we ran quite a few before the spot aired and made them available afterwards. We had a video for Seattle winning, and a consolation video for whoever lost. Within 24 hours it was the number-two shared hashtag.

Q: Still, it's humorous, partly because of the way he delivers it and the setup with the other guy hugging him. 

A: We did shoot a very serious version, but we felt that by the third quarter people are not going to want to see that. We also consider Honda to be a fun brand, and we like to do things with most spots that have a smile, and felt this one delivered on that -- and delivered on what people are used to seeing from Honda. But there is a serious message: safety is important; our engineers care about your friends just as much as you.

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