Chrysler's new marketing chief helped launch an ad campaign for the 2008 Dodge Caravan Thursday, saying the redesigned minivan remains the "bedrock" as Dodge expands its lineup and tries to appeal to a wider audience.
"Working with these iconic American brands is probably the biggest and most exciting marketing challenge that I've been able to take part in," said Deborah Wahl Meyer, who became Chrysler LLC's vice president and chief marketing officer two weeks ago after leaving Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus division. The Caravan, she added, "is the bedrock of what we're really going to do."
Dodge is abandoning its muscular image and embracing a softer, family-oriented side for its most critical product launch since the new Dodge Ram appeared in 2002. In ads that begin Sunday, Dodge's signature thumping bass and the tagline "Grab Life by the Horns" will be gone, replaced with the shorter tagline "Grab Life" and sunny images that emphasize the minivan's flexible interior, high-tech gadgets and safety.
Mark Spencer, senior manager of Dodge communications, said the shorter tagline is meant to appeal to a broader audience, specifically affluent parents in their 30s and 40s. The old tagline, he said, "is a bit truck-oriented, a little more rural."
Dodge also is making a big play for female buyers. The company will let 300 mothers spend a week with a Dodge Caravan to generate buzz. The women — identified through chat rooms, parent groups and other organizations in Minneapolis, Phoenix, Atlanta, New York, Washington and Chicago — will be encouraged to write about the minivans in blogs. Dodge also plans to give away 12 Dodge Caravans as part of a Christmas caroling contest on "The View."
Spencer said a fresh start is needed for Dodge, which upset some dealers last year when it released ads for the new Dodge Nitro that said little about the sport utility vehicle. Gay rights advocates also raised questions about a Dodge Caliber ad that featured a fairy turning a tough-looking guy with a big dog into a pastel-clad man walking four small dogs on pink leashes. Joe Eberhardt, Chrysler's top sales executive, left the company last December.
Spencer said the company wanted to dial down the tone and talk more about the products without losing Dodge's snappy feel. Dealers responded well, he said.
"The creative has taken a tremendous turn for the better," said Wes Lutz, manager of Extreme Dodge Hyundai in Jackson. "It's much more feature-focused, product-focused, showing less about the deal and more about why the product is best in class."
Spencer wouldn't say how much Dodge is spending on the campaign, but he did say the brand will spend 63 percent of its ad budget on television ads and 18 percent of on Internet advertising.
Dodge's first crossover, the Journey, will go on sale in North America next year, and the brand also is preparing the launch the Challenger muscle car. But the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country remain critical, high-volume products for Chrysler, which was recently taken over by the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP. The company still dominates the U.S. minivan market, but that market is shrinking. Minivan sales peaked at 1.37 million in 2000 but were down to 970,000 last year.
Spencer said new features like dual DVD systems, satellite television and middle seats that swivel 180 degrees could cause some buyers to take another look.
"I think it has the opportunity to reinvigorate the segment," Spencer said.