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GM Gets In Rivals' Faces With Aggressively Impolite New Small Car Ads

Both Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) have launched "world cars," but their approach to advertising these fuel-efficient small sedans -- the Focus and the Cruze, respectively -- couldn't be more different. Ford is leveraging its global focus with a global campaign that promotes the Focus' high-tech-in-an-affordable-package attributes. It's virtuous, but kind of ho-hum.

Meanwhile, GM -- which doesn't have much of a track record with small cars -- goes for the jugular with ads that take on the Focus (and the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla) head on. It's in-your-face and impolite, unprecedented, and it is quite likely to work.

Ford's suspect approach
Ford's ad approach is suspect -- not so much in its world focus (why not use the same ads if they appeal to people globally?) as in the execution. The focus on green technology will probably work for Europe, where new fuel injection systems and brake systems sell cars, but Americans want the bottom line (read: mileage figures) in more general ads aimed at building excitement.

Ford's James Farley said that one in four people buying a car worldwide will buy a Focus-sized vehicle, and "the segment is red-hot, with fuel prices rising around the world." But just because everyone will be buying small cars, that doesn't mean they'll respond to the same ads. Europeans have bought small cars for decades -- they just need to know how the new ones are better. Americans need to be convinced that small cars are cool. And tech ads might not do that.

Does Ford really expect to attract new buyers with an ad that promotes the fuel-saving attributes of "active grille shutters"? I know I'm flipping the channel, and they pay me to care about stuff like this. Other ads focus on start-stop (which few Americans know of or care about), blind spot monitoring and the ability to connect to Wi-Fi hot spots. Maybe the last one has legs. The automatic parking ad should impress a global audience.

GM to Ford: You lookin' at me?
GM's Cruze ads, the first from a new advertising agency, have Detroit-bred actor Tim Allen directly taking on other small car brands, most definitely including Ford. "Focus, be careful out there," says one. The Civic is told to "start looking over your shoulder.... We're going hunting, and it's Civic season." The ads are clearly targeted at a market Chevy needs to reach -- people who now own Civics or Corollas, or are weighing a Cruze purchase against a Focus.

The danger for GM is that such ads could backlash because Civic and Corolla owners are usually pretty happy with their cars. But American car buyers are likely to welcome a reason to go back to a domestic brand.

Here's the "Dear Corolla" spot:

Raising the bar
Chevrolet actually has a pretty bad track record in small cars (remember the Chevette and the Vega?), so its commercials quote the car press that the Cruze is a contender, with Lexus levels of quiet and an interior that "raises the small car bar." For Americans who buy small cars in quantity only during times of fuel crisis, the bar has to go up on excitement. These ads are zoomy enough to do that.

Ford has marketed cars worldwide before, but never coordinated advertising to the extent it now intends. The company plans to spend "hundreds of millions of dollars" on its Focus campaign in 2011. Worldwide, Ford spends $4 billion annually on advertising. The Focus ads won't be exactly the same -- the announcers will be regional, for example, and the American ads will express fuel economy in miles per gallon, but their content will be closely linked.

The Ireland-based WPP Group marketing company is coordinating advertising through its Global Team Ford, with offices around the world.

An account football
The Chevrolet account has been something of a football recently. Campbell-Ewald had the Chevrolet brand for 90 years, but it was very briefly replaced with Publicis Worldwide in April of 2010. Incoming marketing vice president Joel Ewanick very publicly fired Publicis a few months later and replaced it with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners (which he'd worked with at Hyundai). Now Ewanick has been kicked upstairs as global chief marketing manager for the GM brand and Chris Perry (also ex-Hyundai) has his old job.

A second set of Cruze TV ads, some of which debuted during the Super Bowl, are more in line with the Focus' tech-oriented spots. One boasts of the Cruze owner's ability to update his or her Facebook status on the road and have the changes read back through the voice recognition system.

Fiat is also launching a world car, the 500, in the U.S., but that model is iconic in Europe and totally unfamiliar in the U.S. Some translation is needed. So Fiat's Jiyan Kadiz tells me, "Fiat North America has developed its own marketing campaign for the U.S. launch."

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Photo: Ford
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