Truck Marketers Take Aim At Quickly Shifting Target

A new-vehicle launch is a bit like a moon shot. Yes, in both cases you need a big boost in the beginning to get the thing off the ground and up to escape velocity. But both rocket scientists and marketers are aiming for a target they hope will be "there" when the vehicle is: In one case, a big chunk of rock; in the other, an immense market demand and a few aging competitors.

Neither Ford or Dodge is likely to hit that target as they roll out new versions of their full-sized pickups this year. Some might say, in fact, that although the trucks are here, the target came and went: gasoline at record prices, for example, driving consumers to more fuel-efficient options.

And while the market for trucks is shrinking, not growing, there are more players vying for a bigger slice: Toyota's 2008 Tundra, tapped as "truck of the year" by the buff book Motor Trend, accounted for sales of 196,555 last year. Chevrolet's Silverado and sibling GMC Sierra have gotten strong reviews and sales in 2007. And there's Nissan's Titan pickup, which--although sales slipped last year--is being lauded by Toronto-based consultancy BrandIntel for garnering the best Internet consumer buzz of any vehicle in its segment.

In Ford's case, there's wiggle room: the F-150 is still the top-selling vehicle in the U.S., and has been for some 31 years. That, in no small part, is due to the fact that the F-150 is less a single model than a portfolio of trucks--almost a division within a division--replete with as many options, sizes, looks and variants for every area of the market as some full-line automakers. Yes, sales were off 13% last year, but the company still sold 690,589 of the haulers.

Todd Turner, president of Car Concepts in Thousand Oaks, Calif., says the contracting truck market is about 1.5 million vehicles, with Ford getting over half of that. "Let's say GM gets 35%; Dodge would have maybe 10%. At one time they had 15%. We are watching them shrink because the market has shrunk, and will continue to."

Says Marc Seguin, senior brand manager for Dodge marketing: "We are not seeing huge swings in the market--it's slow movement over time. It fluctuates between 1.5 and 2.2 million, but it's still the largest segment out there. Long term, we don't see it contracting all that much. Yes, it is contracting this year, because the entire new-car world is contracting a bit."

Turner argues that Dodge's redesigned Ram, unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show two weeks ago, is aiming for a more mainstream market. In the past, he says, Dodge "had crafted an attitude for trucks in design and marketing that was much bolder. It was bold and in your face. This time, they have tried to go a little more mainstream."

Seguin counters that the truck retains its aggressive stance and that the new Ram passes the sheet test. "If you put it under a sheet with competitive trucks, consumers will know it's a Dodge Ram: it has big side shoulders and a big-rig look," he says. "That's very important. We took it to research groups, and consumers said: 'It's muscular, powerful, strong, and masculine.' We didn't purposely design it to appeal to a broader market. We tested designs that were less muscular, more 'Toyota-like' and in droves people said, 'Don't do that to the Ram'," he says.

Seguin also argues that an expanded field of players in Nissan and Toyota, and higher gasoline prices, won't limit Dodge's opportunities. "There's upwards of 40 to 60% brand loyalty in the pickup truck segment, so loyal customers are important, but we think with this design we can capture conquest buyers."

He says the company will focus a lot of marketing attention on the Ram crew-cab version. "There are more people buying trucks as family vehicles than 20 years ago, and those buyers have driven the expansion of light-duty 1500 trucks, particularly crew cabs [which have rear seats] that seat a full five or six passengers." He says crew cabs comprise 50% of the market. "We have never had a true crew-cab offering; if there have been people who left us for crew-cab pickups, we'll get those buyers back with the new Ram."

Another focus for Dodge will be the truck's Ram Box, a storage area that serves as a trunk without taking up bed space. The lockable weatherproof trunk has 8.6 cubic feet of space. "So what we have given someone is the ability to put golf clubs, tools, chainsaws, hockey sticks, into these areas--locked and out of the way," says Seguin.

He says such features are critical for pickup-truck buyers. "It's about 'why didn't anybody do this before' features. You want consumers to have that 'V8' moment."

Tags: automotive
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