So Ford runs an ad campaign pitting an all wheel-drive Fusion against a
front wheel-drive Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. An invited group of
customers scores the Fusion tops in styling, handling, performance and “fun
to drive.” Emboldened by Ford’s “dare to compare” strategy, Saturn decides
to launch a “Side-by-Side-by-Side Test Drive.” Dealers are instructed to
offer customers some seat time in the Aura, Camry and Accord. It’s gutsy! It’s
feisty! It’s ridiculous.
First of all, these comparo campaigns are a major mitzvah for Toyota and
Honda. As far as public perception is concerned, if Ford and Saturn are
working their butts off to prove that their mid-sized sedans are as good as
(i.e. better than) the Camry and Accord, then the Camry and Accord must be
pretty damn good. These “hey what about us?” ads seal the transplants’ rep
as market leaders.
That’s not good. The vast majority of customers are driven by a desire for
safety; to buy the product or service that carries the least risk. In their
mind, that’s always going to be the market leader. Ask Apple or any other
company that’s tried to dethrone the top product in its field: product
excellence loses out to massive market share every time.
In fact, the only way to knock a dominant product off its perch is… to knock
the dominant product off its perch. In other words, saying your Fusion or
Aura is better than a Camry or Accord ain’t gonna cut it— even if they are
better. Your only chance of stealing market share from the top dog is to
remove the consumers’ feelings of safety. Not to put too fine a point on it,
Ford and Saturn have to convince car buyers the Camcord sucks.
Only it doesn’t. Which means this comparo stuff is the marketing equivalent
of pissin' in the wind.
Lest we forget, The Big Three used to own the U.S. auto industry. Toyota,
Honda, Nissan, VW, Mercedes and BMW came in with better products. So what?
The domestic market was Detroit’s to lose. And lose it they did. A few
decades of crap products and even worse service literally handed the
American car market to the transplants. If GM, Ford and Chrysler didn’t suck
in their own right, the transplants would still be nibbling at the margins.
And speaking of automakers that ripped out their consumers’ hearts (and
wallets) and stomped on them until their formerly loyal customers RAN to the
competition, what are the chances your average consumer is going to trust a
Saturn salesman to provide a valid test of an Aura versus a Camry and
I know, I know: Saturn are the shiny, happy plastic people (well, they used
to be plastic). No haggle. Honest as the day is long. But people HATE car
dealers; they trust them about as far as they can teleport them (if only).
So, Saturn dude, you’re going to let me drive an identically equipped Aura,
Camry and Accord? Uh, no.
According to Saturn’s website, customers can compare an Aura XE with
preferred package, a Camry LE and an Accord Special Edition. The list prices
are close enough for rock and roll, but just like Ford’s all wheel-drive
versus front wheel-drive comparo, we’re looking at an apples vs. pears test:
V6 power and optional 17" wheels (Aura) vs. two four-cylinder powerplants
with standard 16" wheels (Camry and Accord).
Hmm. Would a customer looking at a frugal four cylinder Camry (21/30 mpg) or
Accord (21/31mpg) really cross-shop a four-speed slushbox-equipped V6 Aura
(18/28 mpg)? Conversely, would a customer looking for a smooth running V6
really consider a V6 Aura over a six cylinder Camry or Accord just to save a
few thousand at the time of purchase (which depreciation would sort out
Anyway, who can be bothered? It seems self-evident that only the most anal
car shopper has the time or inclination to take three test drives in a row–
and these are the sort of people who will probably prefer the Camry and
Accord for their superior refinement, fit and finish and resale value.
Even before the Saturn’s side-by-side-by-side goes seriously sideways, Chevy’s
making noises about bringing a Camry into their dealerships this fall for a
Malibu vs. Camry shootout. Why not the Accord? It may have something to do
with the fact that they’d rather have the new Malibu face the mid-cycle
Camry rather than the brand spanking new Accord.
Detroit would have you believe that these promotions reflect a new,
combative spirit. You can almost hear “We’re not gonna take it” echoing off
the empty showroom walls. But if you look closely, it’s all just a bit of
down market deviousness. TTAC will deploy its test driving team and report
back. Watch this space.