MARKET FOCUS: More bang for the truck

Nissan has started a PR war by entering Ford's truck territory.

Nissan has started a PR war by entering Ford's truck territory.

Japanese automakers are long-established in the US market. As Detroit has staked out new product categories - like minivans and SUVs - Japanese manufacturers have followed and become major players in those segments as well. Only one corner of the US motor vehicle landscape has remained untouched by foreign incursion - full-sized pickup trucks. Full-sized pickups have traditionally been bought by tradesmen and farmers - people who use the trucks for work on a daily basis. "This is the most uniquely American of segments," says Paul Eisenstein, publisher and editorial director of TheCarConnection.com. But that's about to change. By December, Nissan by will begin selling its new Titan full-sized pickup. As Titan crashes ashore, Ford is also debuting its latest redesign of the F-150, the king of US full-sized pickups, to begin selling in early fall. The PR battle to gain media attention - and favorable reviews - for the two pickups began at the end of last year and hit full speed in late June, as the automakers held simultaneous press events for their new trucks. General Motors, not to be outdone, was also holding a press event to talk about its trucks along with its other new vehicles (see sidebar), but the major combatants for now are Ford and Nissan. The entire auto industry will be watching closely to see what messages connect with truck buyers and, more importantly, if a foreign manufacturer can capture attention and sales in a corner of the business - 2.3 million such vehicles sold last year - that has been exclusively American. If Nissan does well, other foreign manufacturers are sure to follow. Nissan's move is "a really loud shot fired across the bow of the domestics," says Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief with Edmunds.com. "Every time the Japanese have entered a market in the last 15 years they have stolen a huge share of it, if not dominated it." Stakes are high for Ford Ford has more to lose because the F-150 is so important to it. Ford sells around 800,000 a year, which accounted for 23% of its sales last year. What's more, the redesigned F-150 signals the start of a major new product push for Ford. The company has been battered by the Explorer/Firestone tire controversy and management upheaval. It needs to show the auto world it can get back to making cars and trucks that consumers want. "There's more pressure on this F-150 than any other redesign of that truck," says Brauer. Responds Sara Tatchio, truck and SUV public affairs manager for Ford: "We're looking at this as the first product of our new century." The PR and marketing plans the two automakers have put together follow a long-established auto PR blueprint. They're starting by trying to generate buzz in auto magazines, and then targeting newspaper auto writers and lifestyle publications that reach the demographics they desire. Ads for each will come later, closer to when the models actually go on sale. "This is the biggest launch we've ever done," says Ford's Tatchio. At Nissan, "the PR is leading the charge on this," says Kurt von Zumwalt, Nissan North America's director of product and consumer PR. Each company has developed key messages to connect with the marketplace. Other manufacturers will be watching to see which ones resonate with consumers for clues as to how they can succeed in the market. "Going into the market, we have zero credibility," acknowledges von Zumwalt. Nissan has to battle an image created by rival Toyota that Japanese manufacturers can't make a truly full-sized pickup, explains Eisenstein. Toyota's Tundra is viewed by pickup users as what he calls a "seven-eighths scale pickup." "One of the biggest challenges for Nissan is overcoming the wimp image of Tundra," Eisenstein confirms. That's why when Nissan unveiled the Titan at the Detroit Auto Show in January, it pounded away at the message that this truly is a full-sized pickup. "In Detroit, the message was 'big,'" he recalls. The auto show unveiling was done with theatrical features that emphasized the truck's size and power. Nissan begins media outreach early Von Zumwalt says the company let reporters drive new Titans earlier than it normally would to show that it is indeed a full-sized competitor. Prototypes were made available for auto writers to test in April, much earlier in the PR cycle than Nissan has done with other new models. "We wanted to start getting some buzz," he explains. At that April test drive - called a "mule drive" in auto PR parlance - Nissan also let 14 auto journalists drive competitor trucks so they could compare performance to the Titan. "We're seeing the results of that right now" with coverage in such publications as Automobile and Car & Driver, von Zumwalt notes. Automobile magazine termed the Titan "Detroit's Worst Nightmare" - a particularly gratifying comment for von Zumwalt. At the New York auto show in April, Nissan talked about the lineup of different Titan models available, an effort to counter the many variations Ford has for the F-150. In late June, Nissan invited 28 auto writers to Vancouver to drive the Titan, this time expanding its media list to include lifestyle titles such as American Sportsman and magazines for boat owners. While full-sized pickups have sold mostly to trades people over the years, the market has expanded to include individuals who use them to haul boats to weekend retreats or perhaps to do weekend toting of antiques or other items. Nissan wants to go after this more casual user. "Traditionally, the large truck market has been the most brand loyal," says Dave Cole, the director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, MI. But that may simply have been because of a lack of foreign products, he adds, so Nissan's PR strategy could score with the segment. "It's certainly a very credible product," Cole says of the Titan. Nissan has turned its PR attention to newspaper auto writers. It will host 70 of them at a Napa Valley Titan event August 11. It's also planning to bring Titan to reporters around the country, aware that travel budgets have been cut because of the recession. "Ford is the king of the hill, but we're inviting comparisons. We're trying to get in there with a credible truck and earn our stripes. It all comes down to credibility," von Zumwalt says. Ford looks to reestablish dominance At Ford, it comes down to reminding people who the large pickup leader is, says Tatchio. "We're not cocky, but we have a lot of leadership in this area," she says. "We like to say we built America," a reference to building trades people who drive F-150s. A key theme for the new F-150 is "how do you take a leader and make it better," she adds. Ford PR is hammering away at the toughness of the new F-150, its increased capabilities compared to older versions, and its interior features and quietness, Tatchio says. Ford began talking to journalists about the F-150 last December, and then unveiled five series of the new truck at auto shows in Detroit, LA, and Dallas at the start of this year. For the first time, it decided to take the F-150 to every regional auto show in the country this year. It staged a two-week San Antonio media preview in June for more than 300 auto writers, getting San Antonio to proclaim an F-150 day and wrapping F-150 signs on the Alamo Dome, home of the San Antonio Spurs. Media started getting notice about the event four months before it occurred. Ford is handling F-150 PR in-house, while Nissan is working with Edelman on the Titan. Reviewing Ford efforts, Edmunds' Brauer notes that "while the approach is standard PR, the scope is far from traditional." Whether it works will be measured in F-150 sales. "If they blow this launch, it sends a very bad message about their capabilities," says Eisenstein. Nissan has set a modest first-year sales goal for the Titan - 100,000. But if its PR is successful, that small number could grow as Nissan expands production and other foreign competitors jump into the full-sized pickup market. "As a whole, the domestics are watching this very closely," says Eisenstein. "They go through varying degrees of awe and denial." If PR for the Titan connects with the public that may quickly change to shock and dismay. ----- GM has a new pickup line of its own While Nissan and Ford battle for media attention in the full-sized pickup truck market, General Motors is reminding journalists that it's a major player in the truck arena as well. GM held its full-line press preview at the same time in June that Ford and Nissan were ferrying reporters to see their new pickups. "We've got, across the board, 19 new truck introductions this year," says Rick Asher, group manager, product communications trucks, for GM. "Obviously the F-150 is getting a lot of press, but we're not standing still." Perhaps the most offbeat vehicle Asher is promoting is the new GMC Envoy XUV, a cross between an SUV and a pickup. The XUV's roof slides open and a second row of seats folds forward and is covered by a gate to allow hauling of tall objects in a pickup-like back bed. "There's no other SUV like it," Asher says, sounding like the quintessential PR man. GM began whetting auto writers' appetites for the XUV last year by sending press kits with XUVs - complete with sliding roofs - on the front. Another item in the press kit let reporters open the tailgate on an XUV either down or sideways, another feature GM thinks will attract buyers to the vehicle. GM made the vehicle available at a May press event, inviting 40 long-lead auto-publication journalists and a half-dozen auto-market analysts. "We need to plant the seed of what we're doing with the market analysts because they are where the short-lead press goes for comment," Asher explains. A special two-hour block was set aside at GM's full-line preview in June to give journalists a chance to ride in XUVs. Roughly 200 journalists were expected at the event. GM set a truck sales record in May and one in 2002, so Asher expects the truck market will continue to be a hot one. Like the rest of the industry, he's watching the F-150/Titan battle with interest, but he expects to be part of it with GM products once the initial hoopla about the new F-150 and Nissan truck dies down.

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