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Suzuki's Quiet Success Story

In the domestic nameplate marketplace where any percentage of growth, even a fractional increase, is a defining moment of exultation, excitement and exuberance, Suzuki Motor Corporation's 30 percent sales growth this year has to be envied.

Okay, so it began from a relatively small base of about 85,000 vehicles, but the Japanese company—GM owns 3 percent of the company's stock, and Suzuki owns 0.27 percent of GM stock and 14.9 percent of GM Daewoo Automotive and Technology—gives it a unique opportunity to optimize use of powertrains, parts and components and to share in the development of future products. Nice dividend, right?

As a result of its current sales success—it was one of the first 100,000 mile multi-year warranty brands—Suzuki has ambitious marketing plans to take the brand and its 520+ dealers in the U.S. to new heights. The base will be some recently launched vehicles and a most unique and unusual marketing and advertising approach.

At the recent introduction of the new XL7 and SX4 in California, I spoke briefly with Gene Brown, the energetic and enthusiastic new vice president of marketing and public relations for Suzuki. I then continued our discussion last week in a telephone conversation covering sales and the brand's new marketing and advertising campaign.

A graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts, Brown was already working in the automobile business when he decided to return to college for a graduate degree. So, he also has an MBA from the University of Chicago with an academic marketing concentration.

With this sheepskin in hand he returned to the car business at Ford as an intern, which led to a career of over 8 years in product planning and brand management at Ford. Prior to joining Suzuki earlier this year, he was truck marketing manager at Nissan.

MB: Congratulations on nine consecutive months of sales increases

GB: Thank you. We're very pleased and believe we're on kind of a roll.

MB: Nine months seem to be more than just "kind of a roll"—Gene, how high is up? What are your corporate goals, hopes and expectations?

GB: We'd like this to be our first year as a six digit automaker. Basically we'd like to break the 100,000 unit barrier for the first time in our history.

MB: You're certainly making waves and a lot of buzz around the country with the increases this year. Can you sustain this growth?

GB: Last year (2005) was a record for us with 82,101 Suzuki automobiles sold, which is the best we've done since 1985. If we break the 100,000 level this year, it would be a solid record for us and start to put us in the next league. It's still small automotive volume in the scheme of things, but would be very nice for us.

MB: You mentioned a new ad campaign using Suzuki's motorcycle heritage during the La Costa meeting, but didn't show anything. I had a sneak-peak while working out this morning when I saw one of the new print ads with a motorcycle shadow as part of the graphic. Tell me something about the thinking behind this campaign.

GB: First, let's take a step back. Then, you'll realize, given our relatively modest volume in the industry, we're not, by any stretch, the best known car company out there. In fact, there are a lot of people who don't think of us at all when they're thinking about buying a new car.

MB: Is there a but?

GB: But the flip side of that is we are extremely well known—and in a very positive way—for motorcycles. Certainly, we have other products like outboard motors and so on, but its Suzuki's motorcycles that we are best known for in the U.S.

MB: How did you approach using the motorcycle influence concept in the advertising?

GB: We did a lot of work to understand where exactly people saw the connection between those brands and to what extent it was a positive connection that didn't stray too far into motorcycle territory to make sense for an automotive ad. It was clear that reminding people that Suzuki is a company they actually already know and respect before we start talking about our cars could be very effective.

MB: What about timing for the new campaign?

GB: We have an advantage that we really haven't been taking advantage of, and, particularly, with the new product that is coming on line—the Grand Vitara, SX4 and XL7. The time seemed right to start taking advantage of that marketplace brand strength in our consumer communications.

MB: It's probably obvious, but will the new ads run for bike owners in their magazines as well as general market and automotive publications?

GB: Yes, we will advertise in motorcycle owners' publications like Cycle World as well as automotive and general interest publications. We think the motorcycle audience will be particularly receptive to a message about Suzuki and their perceptions of our brand at the outset.

MB: The Sturgis, a.k.a., the motorcycle phenomenon, has grown in size and popularity every year. So, the next question is personal and professional: do you ride a bike?

GB: I do happen to ride bikes myself. When I was a kid—13 or 14—I learned how to ride and on a Suzuki too—a DS185. So, I've known the brand for a long time. It's interesting to realize how many people who do not ride, but, nonetheless, recognize Suzuki as a very positive brand as a result of its motorcycle heritage.

MB: What percentage of Suzuki bike owners also own Suzuki cars?

GB: I don't have that statistic off the top of my head because it's a little hard to get since some bikes—dirt bikes, for example—do not have to be registered. So, sometimes the records one would use to get that information is a bit obscure. But the answers to questions like that are exactly what we are studying as we begin to incorporate our motorcycle heritage into our message. If you check back with me in 90 days, I will have that information for you.

MB: I heard Suzuki recently completed 10 or 12 days of shooting at several locations. Why? What's happening with television advertising?

GB: We have just completed quite an extensive shoot. Our television campaign, which extends to online and other media, focuses on those vehicles that define the Suzuki brand today and for the future. The shoot you mentioned uses the three vehicles previously detailed. That's not to say the message won't play for other vehicles, but the campaign we've been shooting is for those vehicles.

MB: Rumors and reports of a $60 million dollar ad budget for Suzuki are making the rounds? How extensive is your campaign?

GB: Like most automotive advertisers, we do not comment on budget size. But I can say we have a new commercial running on October 2, October 16 and October 30, and we will launch three additional commercials—a total of five new spots.

MB: Is one of your marketing goals to add Suzuki automobile owners to Suzuki motorcycle owners and where possible, vice versa?

GB: We expect the ownership overlap to increase regardless of what it may or may not be today. My expectations as we get into the data is that the percentage may be low today, but with the Grand Vitara, XL7, even the SX4 and the new product we've indicated we're getting—the pickup truck previously announced, which is a huge category for motorcycle riders and owners—we expect market penetration or cross-pollinization to increase substantially over the next few years.

MB: When will the new truck you mentioned be introduced?

GB: We're about two to three years away from having the pickup truck.

MB: In a competitive marketplace for automobiles where deals, rebates, discounts and special offers are the general theme, especially at the entry levels, your motorcycle heritage concept has a unique advantage. It's not just different, it is logical and compelling. Good idea.

GB: I certainly hope to be proven right. I don't really feel it is rocket science to come up with this, but at the same time [enthusiastically], here I am and I get to do it! We think and believe it is going to very powerful for us.

For Brown, growing up in upstate New York—Saratoga Springs to be specific—a citadel of horse and harness racing had to have an influence on his competitive nurturing if only by osmosis. Going back to school for a grad degree after starting a career and then restarting the process again with another car company certainly proves the point.

And even though his first car was a used Volkswagen, learning to ride a motorcycle, a Suzuki at that, was a nice touch on the resume for his new duties and responsibilities at Suzuki.

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