Suzuki Faces Uphill Battle With Kizashi

Gene Brown Suzuki

Next year, Suzuki will launch its Kizashi mid-sized car into a car segment the company hopes has room for a "world class sport sedan the average Joe can afford." Suzuki is targeting the car primarily as a sports sedan alternative for younger buyers looking for some excitement in a mid-sized car, and secondarily to people considering certified pre-owned luxury cars like Audi A4, Acura TSX, BMW 3-Series or Lexus IS AWD.

The company says 54% of those who buy sportier autos are under 45, and that sportier derivatives will have more growth over the next few years than traditional cars. The demographic target for the car is 40-something, 55% male, $75,000 income, 70% with no children, and 75% college graduates.

The car, which will be available starting in December, will get an ad campaign next spring with a theme line: "Premium Without the Premium." The brand also has a new theme line: "Travel Light, Live Fully." Gene Brown, VP of marketing at the Brea, Calif.-based company, says the Kizashi is the most important launch in American Suzuki history. But he concedes that the big problem for the brand is simply that few people know Suzuki makes cars.



Q: Given limited ad dollars, how will you launch a major new vehicle?

A: Obviously, resources are going to remain scarce for everyone, including us. So we will have to be geographically focused. Rather than having major national campaigns, which will be too expensive for our brand given the volume we have to support, we are going through the process now of identifying which markets really are going to be the most fertile.

In those markets we would like to have a real presence across media. In the rest of the nation we will have a presence in endemic Web sites. That way, people in the market and already shopping for a Suzuki will find us. The only national print we are likely to pursue is business print, and possibly lifestyle print, but stuff that eats up ad budget in terms of national media we won't be able to do in the short term.

Q: Which markets will get the focus?

A: We are working on which markets have best opportunity going forward. We have good results in places like Denver, Seattle, and Philadelphia.

Q: Where dealers are doing well?

A: Yes, where a concentration of dealers are doing well. It's not just dealer count; ideally, you'd be building off of some level of strength rather than picking markets where you are at zero.

Phoenix and Las Vegas are two markets I think we should be doing much, much better in. But we don't have lot of dealers in those markets now, and until we do there probably won't be too much upside. And California has such high overhead costs that a smaller brand has a harder time. The Eastern seaboard from New York down is where we have our greatest concentration of dealers.

Q: How has the market affected Suzuki in the U.S.?

A: Cash-for-Clunkers was very good for us, but overall, our sales are poor. We had a lot of our business built on sub-prime in the past, and we had been beginning a transition with these new products and a new brand position toward more prime buyers -- but the meltdown of the credit market went much faster than our transition was going.

The market churned quicker than we did, so we are in a little bit of a trough now that is forcing us to accelerate our changes. It's not like we could launch Kizashi sooner just because of the credit meltdown. We are getting better credit buyers now, just not fast enough -- so we have a ways to go before we are through this downturn. It would be nice if it were to recover as fast as the Dow.

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