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Old 11-17-2005, 04:55   #1 (permalink)
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US:Mercury's marketing blitz aimed at putting more women in its vehicles

Mercury's marketing blitz aimed at putting more women in its vehicles

BY SARAH A. WEBSTER
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Jill Wagner
Age: 26
Title: Mercury spokeswoman
Experience: Parts in "Punk'd," "Monk" and "Dr. Vegas."
Education: Bachelor's degree in business, North Carolina State University.
Drives: Mercury Mariner and a BMW Z3 convertible.

First there was the chick flick -- that movie that appeals to women because of its emotional, introspective plot or girlie cast. The one that often makes macho men roll their eyes.

Now, increasingly, a chick auto brand seems to be coming to life: Mercury.

Ford Motor Co.'s premium Mercury label, squeezed between the mainstream Ford and upscale Lincoln brands, has struggled for years to find a clear identity of its own.

But for the past year, beginning with the launch of the new Mariner crossover, the 66-year-old auto brand has been reinventing itself as a youthful sophisticate -- pitching its new cars and trucks alongside independent films and high-end fashion venues that seem boldly feminine.

Mercury, which launched its hybrid version of the Mariner on Wednesday, has been sponsoring films out of a Glamour magazine contest, makeovers during Fashion Week in New York City and a random Make Your Day giveaway of haircuts, manicures and coffee. Mercury arranged for Ellen DeGeneres to give away a Mariner hybrid on her talk show last week.

Unlike the gray-haired Mercury driver of the past, Stacy Miller of Royal Oak typifies the brand's ideal new customer.

She's young (25), a college graduate (Central Michigan University), gainfully employed (Quicken Loans in Troy) and she does her research. ("I really pay attention," she said.) And Miller just traded in her Chevrolet SUV for a new Mercury Mariner crossover.

"I'm kind of a car snob, and I like having the nicer things," said Miller, whose black Mariner has a sunroof, heated leather seats and six-CD changer. "I think it's a really cute car."

Mercury marketing manager Kim Irwin was uneasy with suggestions that the brand is making a play primarily for women, noting how the brand also sponsors ads in manly magazines such as GQ, Maxim and Stuff. And it's not like Mercury is shamelessly draping itself in a swath of pink.

The brand has hired a fresh-faced, down-to-earth spokeswoman, actress Jill Wagner, who seems to appeal to women and men -- judging from the online blogs where men call her "hot," "Definitely HOT!" and "hot, hot, hot."

Locally, the Metro Detroit Lincoln Mercury Dealers Association has Detroit Lions coach Steve Mariucci in its ads.

But Mercury's official position that it is gender-neutral seems difficult to square with Mercury's highly female-oriented campaign.

"That's what they're doing," Gordon Wangers, chief executive officer of AMCI Inc., an automotive marketing firm in Marina Del Rey, Calif., said of Mercury's apparent targeting of women.

Karl Greenberg, a reporter who follows the auto industry for Brandweek magazine in New York City, even noted how Mercury's campaign is packaged in a soft, muted color scheme.

"There's really little question they're directing most of their brand at women," he said.

Plenty of car and truck models over the years have been aimed toward women -- minivans, the VW Beetle and or Volvo's 2004 YCC, or "Your Concept Car," which was designed for and by women. But few marketing experts could remember an entire brand being positioned for women.

Coming off as a chick brand in the auto business has risks. There's an old adage in the auto industry: You can sell a woman a man's car, but you can't sell a man a woman's car.

Some experts, however, say this long-feared risk is overblown -- and outdated.

"What's wrong with getting a makeover when Mercury might show up the next day and offer guys a golf lesson?" asked Fara Warner, author of "The Power of the Purse: How Smart Businesses Are Adapting to the World's Most Important Consumers --Women."

"I don't think you want to make it too girlie," she said, "but to put your brand where women are, that's a good thing."

During Fashion Week in New York City this year, Mercury sponsored free makeovers for women, as well as shoe shines for men.

For now, men aren't rolling their eyes and Mercury seems to be executing its year-old "New Doors Opened" campaign deftly: On the strength of the Mariner, Mercury brand sales are up 3.9% this year, a significant accomplishment in an overall market that is up only 1.2%.

Data also shows that the brand is attracting younger consumers and more women than it has in the past -- an important shift for the stodgy old brand, which has been in decline for decades and seemed to hit rock bottom last year. Sales fell from 528,033 cars and trucks in 1985 to just over 190,000 in 2004.

Aiming at the young

Irwin said the brand is targeting a so-called psychographic -- a psychological profile that is young, culturally diverse and style-conscious -- more than a demographic.

"Men are style-conscious as well," she said.

Over the past year, as Mercury has launched its Mariner, Montego full-size sedan and Milan midsize sedan, the brand's marketing mantra has become "film and fashion" and it has been strengthening its marketing to sophisticated young consumers -- ones that arguably lean female.

Mercury commissioned an online serial movie, "Meet the Lucky Ones," about the often-comic misadventures of a quirky dysfunctional family.

The brand also backed a series of short flicks out of a Glamour magazine "Reel Moments" contest. In September, Mercury presented one of those films, "Wait," in 25 theaters. The 10-minute flick was about one woman's journey of self-discovery and a bittersweet possibility of reunion with "the man that got away." It premiered before New Line Cinema's "Domino," a dramatization of the life of female-model-turned-bounty-hunter Domino Harvey.

Meanwhile, the new Mercury Milan, which aims for a 55% female customer base and hit showrooms in October, has been sponsoring a Make Your Day marketing campaign, where random people in five cities were treated to free goods and services, such as haircuts, manicures and coffee.

Wangers said that while Mercury's strategy might be risky, an estimated 80% of car-buying decisions are made by women. So Mercury could gain distinction in the marketplace and have some success with a female-oriented strategy.

The key, he said, is to make the image slightly more appealing to women than men and avoid making the cars and trucks feel too feminine.

"Women don't like feminine cars. Women have proven they do like macho cars," Wangers said. "The idea 'Let's make it pink and sell it to women' has never worked."

Warner agreed.

"I would propose women want speed," she said. "I don't think we need ponytail holders."

Room to grow

The brand still has a long way to go before it hits a danger zone: Of the sales during the first half of 2005, about 36% of Mercury buyers were women, according to the Power Information Network, or PIN, an affiliate of J.D. Power and Associates. That's up from 32% during the same period last year.

However, information about the gender of car buyers skews male in some areas because men are often listed as the buyer on a number of household vehicles, even when a woman is thought to be the primary driver, said Tom Libby, director of industry analysis for PIN. For example, minivans are thought to be driven primarily by women, but only 33% of minivan buyers are women.

For now, Mercury dealers and consumers couldn't care less about Mercury's image turning too feminine. They say the brand is hitting its stride, just as the new Milan arrives and a hybrid Mariner is on the way. Ford executives also have said other undisclosed vehicles are coming to Mercury.

Mike Stanford of Varsity Lincoln-Mercury in Novi -- the top-selling Lincoln-Mercury dealership in the country -- said he couldn't be happier with the brand's new direction.

A lot of women "are the No. 1 breadwinners, and I don't think that's something that's a fad. They have a ton of financial clout," he said.
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