Acura's Ikeda recalls when marketing went adrift

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Acura General Manager Jon Ikeda, left, and Saad Chehab, 
Kia Motors America vice president for marketing communications, participate in a panel discussion at Automotive News’ Marketing 360 event last week. Photo credit: TIM RUE

LOS ANGELES — Acura General Manager Jon Ikeda remembers an ad for the 2014 MDX bearing a simple message: “Stay True. And let the metal speak.”

Looking back, there was irony in the tag line. Acura wasn’t being true to itself in that ad.

The dimly lit image had a bleak palette with a gray wall providing the backdrop for the crossover’s black paint job. It was dark with a cerebral message. Ikeda says it didn’t effectively capture what Acura stood for.

Acura’s marketing, he said, had lost its way, with a disconnect between the ad messaging and the product.

In its trailblazing early years as the first Japanese luxury brand, Ikeda said, Acura’s DNA was based on performance. The NSX, introduced a few years after Acura’s 1986 launch, took the halo mantle and solidified the brand’s performance cred. Even mainstream models such as the Legend and Integra made the most of Honda’s finely tuned powertrains.

But during Acura’s quest to establish itself in a world that grew to include Lexus and Infiniti, the brand strayed. Ikeda says Acura went down a “wandering road” where it lost touch with its roots.

“We started to chase what was in, what the market was talking about more than staying true to ourselves,” Ikeda said during a presentation at Automotive News‘ Marketing 360 event here this week.

Rediscovering those roots has been central to Ikeda’s mission ever since he jumped from the design studio to the sales side as general Acura’s manager in 2015.

His promotion to that job came as the brand was approaching its 30th birthday. In recognizing that milestone, the Acura crew discussed how it would portray itself going forward. Ikeda, who began his career at Honda as a designer in 1989, said discussions turned to its history.

The brand reawakened the “Precision Crafted Performance” mantra, which it called Acura’s “core promise” to its customers. The physical embodiment of that philosophy would debut with the Precision Concept at the 2016 Detroit auto show, which showcased a new grille and sports-car-like proportions.

The brand also needed a voice. Ikeda said a British accent, for example, wouldn’t fit with what Acura was trying to do.

After going through a series of voice samples, Acura ended up going with actor Michael B. Jordan, who was on the cusp of stardom after a lead role in 2015 boxing flick Creed.

Ikeda said Acura’s new ad direction, launched in 2016, shunned the blandness of previous years in favor of a more vibrant look.

Acura used the Super Bowl and the Olympics as springboards for its more youthful campaign. With energetic music booming, Jordan’s narration touched on how the young live fast, do crazy things and dream big with hopes of changing the world in a spot that was a nod to the brand’s heritage. Another amped-up ad for the NSX sampled David Lee Roth interjections from the Van Halen hit “Runnin’ With the Devil” against a palette of electric reds and blues.

Acura hasn’t strayed from the more upbeat ad direction, even though its sales have trailed off from a post-crisis peak of 177,165 vehicles in 2015. Intense competition has weakened Acura’s grip on the luxury crossover segments that fuel much of its volume.

Ikeda said the brand isn’t here to “reinvent luxury.”

“When you start benchmarking and looking at everything else, instead of looking introspectively, is where you lose your way,” Ikeda said during a panel discussion. “We’re a lot more truthful [now] to who we are and what we’re trying to be. I think it’s a growing pain we went through.”

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