Are We There Yet?: Minivan marketing is driven by the changing needs of American families.

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There was a time when being a minivan owner was pretty cool.

For a period starting in the early 1980s, when Chrysler couldn’t make enough Caravans and Voyagers, the minivan was a suburban status symbol. Baby Boomers claimed it as their preferred mode of family transportation, replacing the stalwart station wagon that had dominated for decades. Nearly every auto maker added a minivan to its line, and the category topped the auto sales charts throughout most of the ’90s.

Times have changed. Boomer offspring have grown up and out of their car seats and started driving their own cars. More and more moms, notably those from the older end of Generation X, are working. Sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are all the rage in suburbia, with many a maturing mom abandoning her minivan, opting for liberating style over utilitarian substance. Along the way, the minivan has developed a stigma, and now brands its owner as pragmatic and sensible – not to mention a little bit square.

Still, there are plenty of minivans being sold. A record 1.6 million were driven off dealers’ lots in 1999, with DaimlerChrysler leading the way with nearly 38 percent of the market. And their overall functionality remains unchallenged. But there is that image thing.

“Minivans are out of favor,” says Gordon Wangers, managing partner of Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc., Vista, CA. “Many former minivan moms wouldn’t be caught dead in a minivan [now]. They want an SUV. It’s a major trend that will not go away.”

That phenomenon has created a daunting marketing challenge for some auto manufacturers as they head into the annual new-model season. Conceding the cool factor to SUVs, car manufacturers are left to market 2001 minivans for their safety and practicality. Promotions still generally target families – although a market for empty-nesters and over-55s is emerging – but their focus is getting narrower and sharper.

Safe Bets

Safety has been a resounding marketing theme throughout the minivan’s evolution, and continues to play a major role in current campaigns. Unsurpassed ratings on government-conducted crash tests are often touted, especially compared with relatively lower grades for SUVs – which are often perceived to be safer because of their size. Plus, with small children as primary passengers, the importance of car seats and seat belts is a key component.

Ford Motor Company, Dearborn, MI, recently signed a sweeping three-year, $20-million alliance with Nickelodeon, pairing the children’s media division of New York City-based Viacom with its Windstar minivan. The multi-faceted deal ties into the popular Nick Jr. TV series Blue’s Clues, with the animated title character Blue serving as spokespuppy for a child-safety campaign. “[Blue] will be a symbol of safety,” similar to the way cartoon dog McGruff is used to symbolize crime-prevention measures, says Jim Townsend, Windstar marketing manager.

The effort includes a 16-page, custom publication on safety aimed at kids and parents that will be polybagged with Nick Jr. magazine and a co-branded Web site that will be refreshed quarterly. Ford will run related advertising on the Nickelodeon network from the fourth quarter of this year through the third quarter of 2003, and will also run print ads in Nick Jr. magazine. Regional and local dealer tie-ins are also planned.

“We want to take the safety message to the grassroots level,” says Lisa Owens, Windstar marketing manager. “That’s what’s appealing about the relationship between these two powerful brands.” Besides safety-tip cards for customers and other point-of-purchase materials, dealers may have the opportunity to sponsor local legs of Nickelodeon’s national Blue’s Clues live tour. “We want to connect with kids on their terms,” adds Owens.

That desire may go beyond simply entertaining the kiddies to help spur Windstar sales. Last year, Nickelodeon commissioned J.D. Power and Associates, Agoura Hills, CA, to study the impact kids have on their family’s decision to purchase a minivan or an SUV. Among the findings, which Nickelodeon shared with Ford, was that 69 percent of parents said their children had helped sway them.

“The study was interesting, and it shows that children do play a role in the purchasing decisions,” Owens offers. “But by no means was it the primary driver for the Nickelodeon alliance. Our corporate philosophy is that we owe something to kids and parents to teach them about safety. With Blue’s Clues, [Ford recognizes the] power of the brand. Blue is hot.”

Ford launched another child-safety promotion called Boost America at the NY Auto Show in April. The $15 million effort seeks to get kids who’ve outgrown car seats into booster seats – a million of which the auto maker will give away to consumers. Partners in the effort include Hertz Corp., Park Ridge, NJ, which will provide information on booster seats with its car rentals.

General Assembly

Detroit-based General Motors offers minivans through three of its divisions: the Chevrolet Venture, the Oldsmobile Silhouette, and the Pontiac-GMC Montana. Each model is marketed to a different consumer segment, based on family life stages and changing needs.

Venture targets families with young kids, so safety is a key promotional ingredient. “We try to get into programs that allow us to take vehicles to families where they already are,” explains Michelle Stoutermire, assistant brand manager-marketing.

This summer, for example, as part of the brand’s year-old alliance with Warner Bros., nine Six Flags theme parks across the country are staging a Chevy Venture Looney Tunes Rockin’ Road Show. The traveling song-and-dance event calls on parents and kids to pledge to always wear seat belts.

The brand is also featured in an ongoing safety promotion at shopping malls, community centers, playgrounds, and Chevy dealers. In conjunction with the National Safe Kids Coalition, 51 Venture Mobile Car Seat Check-Up minivans are dispatched around the country as roving stations for on-site inspections of child safety seats in any vehicle, regardless of model, year, or perhaps rival make.

The Warner Bros. Edition of the Venture, which is equipped with a video system (September 1999 promo), is among a number of minivans being marketed as mobile entertainment centers.

As a premium to owners, Chevy offers a benefits program called VentureTainment! that is initiated with a welcome packet including headphones, a key chain, and a member card good for discounts at Warner Bros. retail stores and free Warner Bros. videos. Additional promotional elements roll out over the course of ownership, such as activity books to help keep kids occupied while on summer road trips.

The Oldsmobile Silhouette has a Premiere model also outfitted with a video system. Since the Premiere targets families with older kids (ages 9-15), safety is not typically part of the promotional mix, and the emphasis is more on the vehicle’s utility as a family gathering place.

“One of the insights we have found in research on couples and families is that they have very little time together at home,” reports Joni Rainbolt, Silhouette assistant brand manager. “They are often together in the minivan as a family, whether making a short drive to the ball field or a long trip to Grandma’s, but no one thinks of that as quality time. We try to design the vehicle so that multiple activities can be done inside.”

Of course, watching movies together is one of those activities, which is reflected in the test-drive promotion featuring Silhouette run for the last three years in conjunction with Blockbuster Video, Dallas (January 1999 promo). This year’s effort doubles the value of Blockbuster coupons awarded for a test drive to $50.

Old Treads

Toyota Motor Sales USA, Torrance, CA, boasts of the ride quality, safety, and cargo space of its Sienna minivan while targeting the aging family. The vehicle was part of a promotion in February with Borders Books and Parenting Magazine called Reading 2000; moms and kids were invited to Borders for a story hour, during which they received prize-filled goodie bags and chances to win a $200 Borders gift certificate. If the locations were conducive, local dealers had vehicles on display.

In May, the Sienna Web site sponsored an online Mother’s Day promotion in conjunction with American Greetings.com and eGreetings.com. Moms who received e-cards from either site were also greeted with a Sienna banner ad which, when clicked, downloaded a bouquet of virtual flowers.

Minivan marketers for Olds and Toyota are both courting older consumers without kids, too. “We’re seeing research indicating that empty nesters and 55-plus consumers like minivans for their versatility,” says Steven Strum, Toyota’s vp-marketing. “So we’re just getting into that promotional area. We have to if we want to protect our minivan franchise and protect our business long-term.”

To distinguish the Montana, Pontiac has pretty much eschewed the family. “The way we promote the Montana is a little different than in the general minivan marketplace,” says Maria Rohrer, advertising and sales promotions manager for Pontiac. For instance, advertising for the vehicles doesn’t show kids or families. “We show cowboys,” Rohrer says.

Montana is aimed at image-conscious parents who may be ambivalent about becoming stigmatized minivan drivers. “They feel forced to go into this market, so we’ve tried to make them feel better,” Rohrer says. Thus, Montana is depicted as a more rugged and sporty vehicle – almost like, dare we say, an SUV? “You might think SUV, but it’s not in our vocabulary,” she says.

In connection with GM’s ongoing sponsorship of the U.S. Olympic Team, Montana has been aligned with USA Gymnastics, the governing body of the sport here in the U.S. In addition to providing vehicles to Olympic hopefuls through GM’s Team Behind the Team effort, Montana sponsors such events as the Olympic team trials in Boston this summer. A host of on-site promotions involving individual local dealers and regional groups are planned during the six-day event (part of which will be televised nationally on NBC) including camera-visible signage, vehicle displays, autograph sessions with athletes, giveaways, Web tie-ins, and other lead-generation efforts. Later this summer, Montana will be part of an Olympic-themed joint promotion with McDonald’s.

Market leader DaimlerChrysler revealed a number of new features for its 2001 Caravan, Voyager, and Town & Country models at the Detroit Auto Show in January, including powered liftgates, removable powered center consoles, and larger engines. The announcement generated 40,000 “hand-raisers” who expressed an interest in the vehicles (at the show and afterward through dealers) and received promotional mailings. When the new models hit showroom floors this fall, they’ll be added to the Chrysler Proving Grounds Tour, a national test-driving promotion featuring other models as well.

Consumer research conducted by DaimlerChrysler (which avoids showing any people in its ads) confirms the aging of the minivan market. “About 40 percent of our customers don’t have kids in their families,” says DaimlerChrysler spokesperson Bryan Zvibleman. “We love our soccer moms, but they don’t represent our major market.”

Nevertheless, soccer organizations represent a strong, highly targeted minivan constituency. Chevy Venture sponsors the U.S. Soccer Federation, U.S. Youth Soccer, and various state associations. From 1990 to 1997, Nissan was aligned with Hawthorne, CA-based American Youth Soccer Association (AYSO), which currently represents 635,000 kids, 250,000 adult volunteers, and 425,000 households. “They checked new sales of the Quest minivan when it was introduced and found that almost eight percent of those who purchased it were AYSO families,” says Cathy Ferguson, chief marketing officer for AYSO.

During its seven-year pact with AYSO, Nissan ran numerous grass-roots promotions including branded premium giveaways to players, coaches, and volunteers and local tournament sponsorships. The company published a newsletter for AYSO members, and hired Major League Soccer stars Tony Miola and Cobi Jones as celebrity pitchmen.

Asked why Nissan did not renew the seemingly effective program, spokesperson Scott Vazin says, “Basically, the company took a different direction. We stopped doing cause-branded marketing as we approached our `back-to-basics’ business philosophy.” Nissan’s only current minivan promotion is a “Quest for Safety” program aimed at educating the public about child seats.

Hyundai, which has sponsored the Women’s World Cup and other major international competitions, recently signed on to replace Nissan as official auto sponsor for AYSO. Hyundai is featuring its Santa Fe SUV in promotions until it introduces its first two minivan models (currently being marketed internationally) to the U.S. The Korean auto maker’s deal with AYSO will include direct-mail promotions to members, ads in the organization’s Soccer Now magazine, and access to internal research.

Whether focusing on soccer tournaments, video stores, kids TV, or theme parks, families of every variety will remain central to minivan marketing. They might not be as sexy as SUVs, but their functionality still can’t be beat. “We remind consumers of the positive imagery of minivans: the safety, the practicality, the down-to-earth sense of not being concerned about image,” says Ford’s Jim Townsend.

And not worrying about image is a pretty cool characteristic.

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