NEW YORK — In this time of high gas prices and low auto sales, many carmakers have cut ad spending and focused on fuel-efficient small vehicles. But that hasn’t stopped Volkswagen and Ford from putting the pedal to the metal this fall on rollouts of big new family haulers.
Volkswagen and Ford are putting a large share of their current ad budgets behind their biggest launches of the year, which happen to be big vehicles: the three-row Routan minivan for VW and the seven-passenger Flex crossover for Ford.
“We’re in a tough year no matter what size vehicle you are selling,” says Stephanie Brinley, analyst at industry tracker AutoPacific Group in Southfield, Mich. However, “If they don’t advertise, they won’t sell (them). It would be a whole lot worse for them to draw back from advertising their new models and hope that the right people will find them by word-of-mouth.”
Besides, she adds, there’s still a market for these. “There are still families that need to seat seven and need the cargo capacity.”
Volkswagen will court families for its minivan with a quirky campaign built around actor and mom Brooke Shields. Ford’s campaign for the Flex crossover emphasizes style and goes after buyers who would not consider a minivan — particularly men and buyers moving down from big truck-based, gas-hungry SUVs.
The Routan, which began arriving at dealers last week, starts at $24,700 and seats seven. Volkswagen hopes for it to be a key part of its plan to more than triple its U.S. sales to 800,000 vehicles a year by 2018.
“The minivan is not the SUV or truck segment,” says Tim Ellis, VW’s vice president for marketing. “There are a lot of families. We expect to see a robust level of minivans being sold over the next couple of years and expect this to have the second-biggest volume behind Jetta.”
One way VW has reached out to families: Buyers of Routans this month get $1,500 in a 529 college savings account at Upromise.
Ellis says that VW projects Routan will gain 5 percent of annual U.S. minivan sales of about 750,000. But sales of minivans, which have an unhip image, are down from the 1990s, when more than a million a year was routine.
The Routan is made for VW by Chrysler, the minivan pioneer and only Detroit automaker still building them. It is a modified version of the newly redesigned Dodge- and Chrysler-brand minivans. VW says changes it made in style and handling have given Routan a German flavor.
“Volkswagen chose to partner with Chrysler because of its market leadership in the segment. …However, the Routan is a Volkswagen by design and driving dynamics,” says Ellis.
That’s important because “German engineering” is a crux of its ad campaign. Ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky created the campaign that features Shields, mother of two and star of NBC’s “Lipstick Jungle.”
In ads that began this week, Shields says people are having kids just to justify buying a Routan. She urges them to procreate for love, not to get German engineering. Marketing also includes the BabyMaker 3000, a Web site launching later this month where couples can upload their photos and see what their kids could look like.
“The ads just ooze with satire,” says Ellis. “Brooke is perfect. She’s a mom. She’s a successful writer of children’s books. She’s topical, she’s relevant, she fits our demographic target, and she’s on a lot of magazine covers now.”
Ford, by contrast, is going for people who need a hauler, including SUV downsizers, but want room with style. The boxy Flex, a car-based crossover with better-than-SUV gas mileage, is getting a full-court press of ads that will be Ford’s marketing focus for the rest of the year.
“What people want today is a more stylish car-based ride and handling with fuel-based benefits,” says Usha Raghavachari, brand communications manager for Ford crossover vehicles.
In addition to ubiquitous TV ads (glittery, night ambience), the car scored product placement in “Desperate Housewives” as the ride for cool dad Tom Scavo (Doug Savant) and is in sponsored content on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.”
Digital marketing includes iPhones, Xbox, Dish and Yahoo Mobile. An iPhone application gives 360-degree views and a dealer locator. There are downloads for Xbox gamers, and a Dish Network interactive feature will take viewers to Flex videos by clicking out of a commercial. Yahoo Mobile marketing includes rich-media ads and banners.
Ford also paid to feature Flex in first-ever digital ads embedded in 100,000 covers of Esquire magazine’s 75th anniversary issue, on select newsstands starting Wednesday. A digital chip creates moving images of the Flex in panels in the two-page foldout.