Instead, they get mixed reviews for a recent integration in an episode of NBC comedy "Kath & Kim."
The Smart brand cars, made under the Mercedes-Benz umbrella, are 8.8 feet long and 5 feet wide. "Makes the Mini Cooper feel like a school bus," observed USA Weekend. They look as if they could be assembled from a kit by a loving father who wants his son to blow away the bullies at the go-kart track. The hated word "cute" might even enter the mind of the most hardened gearhead.
After success in Europe, Smart cars went on sale in the U.S. only a year ago (so the bulk of the films they appeared in were out when the cars were mostly known in Italy or France). The vehicles cost somewhere in the $13,000-$18,000 range, with one appeal-- their top-notch gas mileage, at 33 miles per gallon in the city and 41 on the freeway. That economic benefit also can bring the satisfaction that one is helping the environment. Media coverage of the Smarts has at times been glowing, and an AP story even dispelled some notions that the smallest car sold in the U.S. is unsafe. But after only 12 months stateside, knowledge of the vehicle is on the level of who replaced Hillary Clinton in the Senate.
The Smart needs wise marketing. And the challenge isn't hard: Build awareness. Network TV executives would surely be more than eager to offer their services. (A car company with money to spend as Detroit retreats. Whoa!)
Enter "Kath & Kim," a comedy about a mother and daughter. In the recent episode, a Smart is purchased by the mother's boyfriend as a replacement for his wrecked Miata (one of the top product placements of the week, according to measurement firm iTVX).
The show aired Jan. 22.
On Jan. 23, would research show more people knew Kirsten Gillibrand was in the Senate than a five-foot-wide car is on the market? Unlikely.
The Smart folks missed an opportunity.
To start: It's not clear whether they made the right move in using a comedy as a marketing platform. With brand awareness so low, it's not hard for someone accustomed to lumbering American gas-guzzlers to think that the idea that a car can fit in a tool shed with a riding mower is a joke. Promotion of the car needs a different milieu than a show with absurd humor can offer.
Then there's the matter of execution. In the show, the loopy boyfriend drives the car up, and the not-the-sharpest-knife-in-the-drawer mother runs out of the house gushing: "It's adorable ... I love it. It's so sexy and stylish." The boyfriend then beckons her to get in.
But at no point in the scene is the brand mentioned. The uninitiated might think the puny car is simply an extension of the humorous bit--not actually available at a dealership.
From a brand integration standpoint, what Smart marketers need is a reality (faux reality) series to plug the vehicle--the kind of show where contestants can, in essence, be given a script. The kind where the car could become part of a challenge a la "The Apprentice"-- where a Smart car serves as the fulcrum for a competition, and the contestants can tout its attributes while trying to win.
Not only would the brand itself be driven home to viewers, but messages about its splendid gas mileage, safety benefits, sound system, etc. can be delivered with clarity.
An effort is made in "Kath & Kim" to tout the gas mileage, but it is delivered with an attempt at humor that falls flat: "It gets like a million miles to the gallon ..."
Marketers for Smart will soon get another go at product placement. It looks as if the car will have a place in "Pink Panther 2," which opens Friday.
Of course, that's also a comedy.
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