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Fit, Honda's New Small Car: Huge Potential, Big Ad Budgets, Prodigious Creative and Mammoth Expectations

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2007 Honda Fit Sport

By Marty Bernstein

AIADA Contributing Editor

The Fit’s Specs

Already one of Honda’s biggest sellers in Europe and Asia, the Fit comes to America with several attributes for those customers who want, said Chuck Schifsky, manager regional public relations operations of American Honda, “An attractive, efficient and safe small car.”

It’s impressively big smallness, the Fit website proclaims. Fit features include:

•109 HP, 1.5 liter VTEC engine
•Front, front side and side curtain air bags
•Steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters (Sport and SAT only)
•Air conditioning
•Air filtration
•Power windows
•Power side mirrors
•60/40 split Magic Seat
•Anti-lock ABS brakes
•4 interior configurations
•Stick or automatic transmission
•Hatchback (5 door) convenience

Not too long ago little or small cars, AKA subcompacts, were an anathema to automobile manufacturers. The reasons were simple: SUV sales and profits were big and getting bigger. And it was the era of not-that-expensive per gallon gasoline.


But with oil tripling in price from $23 a barrel just three years ago to a stratospheric $75 per barrel last week, small, economically priced, energy-efficient, non-gas guzzling little cars have become really big news. And too many manufacturers, hopefully big sellers.


To the subcompact scrum of the Chevy Aveo, Toyota Yaris, Kia Rio, Nissan Versa, Mini and a few others, add the Fit, one of Honda’s best-selling vehicles in Asia and Europe. All these brands are now fighting for the interest and attention of a phalanx of automotive reviewers, the arbiters of automotive excellence and the disseminators of auto accolades.


Sure the vehicle has got to be good, priced right and competitive to start.  But the brand with the most distinctive, unusual, unique, intriguing, involving, creative, comprehensive and targeted marketing, advertising, promotional, merchandising and publicity program (and a good car) that is backed with a mega-bucks budget is, I predict, going to emerge as the big winner. Fair is fair. 


And it looks like the program Honda launched last week to introduce the small Fit, is not just big, it’s the first out of the box program, and, arguably, has established the creative benchmark for this growing category of automobiles.  The pipeline of over 1,000 Honda dealers has been primed to sell 50,000 Fits the first year. 


The Target Audience


The Fit is targeted, according to RPA, Honda’s long time advertising agency, at consumers with a non-conformist mindset.  The words used were “metro-funky” a demographic/psychographic term I don’t recall being used before, but do understand.


It’s the new generation of first new car buyers – they’re well beyond the “grown-up with TV” generation designation. These are today’s real media mavens – some call them media monsters. It’s a hugely savvy, expressive, independent market with lots of RTS, or ready-to-spend cash and plastic.  


Just ask the manufacturers, retailers and purveyors of iPods, music downloads, cell phones, cell phone ring-tones, computer and video games, PDAs, WB cable telecasts and several dozen other products and services how important this group is to their business. They love them. Who wouldn’t, when they spend billions on themselves.


Honda calls them non-conformists and has aimed a high energy, colorful campaign with a fast-paced, playful tone and focus that acknowledges, if only through generational icons, the wide array of influences on the group: the clothes they wear, hairstyles, music, video games, graphic novels, movies and cartoons (I used to call them comic books), socializing, partying, and, of course, the tuner or customized car-culture that started on the West Coast.


Oh, and I suspect, there’s one other target group that was not mentioned – aging boomers. They want something small and inexpensive.  Fit fits this need with an entry level MSRP of $13,850 – it is north of 13 thousand and a little south of 14, depending on your point of view. 



The Creative Platform


Some advertising agency guru years ago proclaimed, every advertising campaign must have a tag line – the words or phrase in the headline or used under the logo in a print ad or spoken as the television commercial fades to black.  A tag line is usually the expression of the advertiser’s corporate culture, often a motivation to buy and other times the benefits of ownership or some idealistic marketing expression. 


For the Fit, the tag line says simply, The Fit is Go!     


Once the tag is developed the real work begins. And an incredible effort and investment was undertaken by RPA on Honda’s behalf just to create and produce the various elements of the Fit campaign. There are:


Ø11 different TV productions & commercials (05 seconds to 30 seconds in length)

Ø7 print (magazine and newspaper) advertisements in various sizes

Ø3 outdoor (billboard, subway, poster) advertisements 

Ø4 direct mail pieces

ØNumerous website iterations, links, content and programs; publicity programs, local previews, and dealer programs

ØIn addition, there is a sponsorship with the House of Blues ("Fit Nights"), Fit Preview Parties (partnered with Filter Entertainment Group) and the Fit collegiate marketing program.


The Media


If small is going to be big, Honda has made smaller better by emphasizing the fact that size really does matter. Television commercials are usually 30 seconds long, but not for the Fit. Honda’s Fit commercials are only 5 seconds in length!


That’s right, just 5 seconds long and they’re going to run in groups (Honda calls them pods) of three’s for 15 second commercials. They’re not only quick, they’re quirky. Images whizzing by as mechanical, robotic voiceovers deliver the name of the commercial – Cargo, Frisky Predator, Nocturnal Flyer, Silver Bullet, Speedy Demon and Wrestler – and the tag line, “Fit is a go!”

Where are they going to run?  RPA wouldn’t tell me, but others have detailed ABC Family, Cartoon Network, HGTV, National Geographic, Nick at Nite, Oxygen, Sci-Fi, TV Land, USA and a few other cable networks. And of course, there will be local advertising too. It appears the traditional broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, etc., are not included for the Fit. 


Fit has not forgotten that some unconventionals do read.  The graphics feature an art director’s kaleidoscope of colors, while the copywriters have played with the words and phrases that trigger a response. Click links below to view two examples:


Micro Muscle Fury                 Ultra Comfortable Cargo Mover


Printed literature, the ubiquitous brochures, mailers and flyers that jam one’s mailbox or fill the little plastic bags at car shows use similar copy and graphics, but are smaller in size than usually associated with this medium.  There are some unusual applications and uses as well. 


And there’s the Fit web presence, which will make small even bigger and more important.  The Internet, it has been well documented, is becoming the medium of choice. Why? Because it works and is measurable. In dollar size, it may be small compared to TV, but it’s growing in importance especially to the Fit target.


That’s why Honda will use Google search terms – the gold standard – and will also use blogs, search sites, content providers, media outlets and special pages for the Internet introduction of the Fit.  The Fit site is easy to navigate with a lot of information including, the online catalog of interior and exterior accessories available. This merchandise category has been a gushing well of business for Scion and Mini with a huge variety of automotive and non-auto gear for the owners and fans alike. Fit was wise to follow this lead.


Before the official launch of the Fit, event marketing kicked off a multi-city tour in major markets where the “unconventionals” could be recruited to come take a look or test drive and hear some cool music. 


And Fit’s advertising budget is …?


Estimates for media expenditures alone have ranged from $20 to $50 million.  According to TNS Media Intelligence, in 2005 Honda spent $579 million, up 17.1% from 2004’s $495 million budget. It is important to note these amounts do not include agency creative, production and service fees, or retailer/dealer ad contributions. An important launch for Honda, the estimated expenditure on the Fit is about equal to what Mini spent when it reintroduced its small car in America.


Bottom Line


In the early ‘60’s, more years ago than I care to recount, America got its first small car backed with a unique advertising campaign. That’s when Doyle Dane Bernbach ran one of the first ads for Volkswagen.  The headline: Think Small. 


Some things never change, do they?