Three Shops With Plenty To Sweat About

Dan Wieden is frustrated. The president of ad agency Wieden & Kennedy Inc. has just unveiled a new batch of commercials for Subaru of America Inc. Wieden insists the ads are a natural evolution of his agency's offbeat campaign. They do have the same visually arresting style and use the same elliptical slogan: "Subaru. What to Drive." But the ads also promote the car's all-wheel drive and antilock brakes. And that more orthodox approach has fed speculation that Wieden is retreating from its strategy of making Subaru a totem for the unpretentious Nineties. "It's getting hard to make anyone believe us," says Wieden.

No wonder. When an adman starts to talk about a campaign's evolution, it's usually a sign of a species in trouble. At least the Japanese carmaker and its shop are in good company: American Express Co. and Miller Brewing Co. also rolled out major new ad campaigns with much fanfare in 1991. All three followed protracted and much publicized account switches. Yet while they have stirred plenty of controversy, none has revived lagging sales. Subaru sales are basically flat. American Express has failed to reinvigorate its charge cards with its new slogan, "The Card. The American Express Card." And Miller Lite beer continues to lose ground despite trying a cocky tagline: "It's It. And That's That."

LOST MOMENTUM. The lackluster results are all the more surprising because the campaigns come from agencies renowned for creativity. Wieden won kudos for its kinetic advertising for Nike Inc. Perennial hot shop Chiat/Day/Mojo Inc. created the new American Express campaign. And Miller Lite's new ads came from Leo Burnett Co., the Chicago agency known for introducing the legendary Marlboro Man. What's more, the campaigns enjoyed the highest of profiles: All three had been major hits in the 1980s, even if they stumbled in the more saturated markets of the 1990s.

Has Madison Avenue lost its power to turn lemons into lemonade? Not exactly. But these three campaigns are case studies in the limitations of advertising: It is hugely difficult for any ad to restore a slipping brand. "What all three have in common is the assumption that these are advertising problems and not structural or marketing problems," says Al Ries, chairman of marketing consultancy Trout & Ries.

Sure, the agencies may not have produced stellar campaigns. But Ries and other marketers say much of the blame lies with clients who allow brands to lose their way in the first place. It's a long tradition in marketing: Unable to address fundamental problems, clients fire their longtime agencies, conduct noisy searches for new shops, and trumpet their new ads as a panacea. Then, when sales don't pick up, the ads come under sharp criticism. "We are blamed if the advertising doesn't turn things around," complains Christopher Wackman, who oversees the campaign as Subaru's vice-president of marketing.

In Subaru's case, retail sales have barely budged since Wieden's campaign premiered last August, rising just 3.4% in the first half of 1992. Subaru points out sales for the Legacy, which gets much of the attention in the ads, are up 9.1%. Overall, though, Subaru will sell about 105,000 cars in 1992, well shy of its target of 130,000.

Subaru blames the economy, but its marketing efforts haven't helped. For years, it promoted its unfashionable cars as "Inexpensive. And built to stay that way"--even as its new models were growing steadily more pricey. Subaru dealers say Wieden's first ads were only a partial solution. They positioned Subaru as a car that appeals to solid values over glitz. "If a car improves your standing with the neighbors, then you live among snobs with distorted values," says the narrator in one spot.

MIXED MESSAGES. Ad critics loved the cheeky tone. But dealers say the spots didn't give consumers enough reason to buy a Subaru instead of a Honda or a Toyota. "We like the fact that they were giving us a new image," says Rick DeSilva, president of Liberty Subaru in Oradell, N.J. "But they weren't giving us a product story." Wieden concedes Subaru waited too long to push the car's features. The new ads do plenty of that, pointing out that Subaru's durable engine lets drivers "rack up the miles."

If Subaru is finding it tough to go upmarket, American Express is having trouble staying there. After years of persuading customers that "Membership has its privileges," the company has seen its position eroded by fierce competition from Visa and other bankcards. As the spendthrift 1980s lurched to a close, AmEx also felt that its gilt-edged image had become a liability.

Now, AmEx has set the modest goal of retaining current cardholders. Like Subaru, it wants advertising to stress the card's suitability for a more fiscally sober era. But it also wants to play up traditional benefits, such as the card's lack of a preset spending limit. Chiat's solution is to turn the card into an icon: In its ads, the card doubles as the tail of a supersonic jet or a ball that a golfer hits out of a trap. But the interweaving of 1980s imagery with a message of fiscal sobriety hasn't won over cardholders. On the contrary, AmEx reports that in the first quarter, its total number of cards in use declined by 2.7%.

Worse, the campaign has been derided for saying too many things. "As a marketing executive, I was always taught to see the good in my competitor's advertising," says Bradford W. Morgan, executive vice-president for marketing and sales at Visa USA Inc. "But I'm really having trouble with American Express."

For its part, AmEx insists it is too early to tar the ads. The marketer claims its internal research shows they have improved consumer attitudes toward the card. "We are absolutely sure we are breaking through," says Joan Bonnette, vice-president for consumer advertising. But Bonnette says AmEx is tinkering with the campaign, and she won't rule out shelving it. Unless AmEx confronts more basic issues, such as its high membership fee and lower merchant-acceptance rate, it can't hope to retain share, says H. Spencer Nilson, publisher of the Nilson Report, an industry newsletter.

ALIEN-ATED YOUTH. Some experts say Miller faces an equally tough battle. Despite a fabled slogan--"Tastes Great. Less Filling"--and a dominant position in the low-calorie market it created, Lite has seen its share whittled down by Bud Light and Coors Light. The trouble is, Lite allowed Bud and Coors to lure away younger drinkers, who now make up a solid chunk of the market. So to freshen Lite's image, Miller retired the aging jocks from its vintage campaign.

Burnett rolled out its new slogan to almost universal criticism last July. Miller distributors and ad critics condemned the campaign as vacuous and said it didn't give Lite any image--youthful or otherwise. "I thought it was kind of flat," says Kirby Lawlis, president of distributor Miller Brands Milwaukee Inc. Worse, Lite's 1991 sales dropped 5%, to 19 million barrels, despite an estimated 33% increase in ad spending. That's the first decline in the brand's history. So Burnett has phased out "It's It" and replaced it with "Come on. Let me show you where it's at . . . " Paul E. Basquin, director of Miller's low-calorie brands, claims the change was "evolutionary" and says the original slogan still appears on billboards. And he says the campaign boosted awareness of Lite.

Yet a new Lite commercial eschews the bar scenes of the "It's It" spots in favor of an offbeat spot of aliens that land on earth and have a party with Lite. Lawlis and other distributors say the approach is more hip and youthful. Still, some industry experts say it will be tough to restore Lite's momentum, no matter what ads Miller airs. Having once ceded young drinkers to Coors and Budweiser, this argument goes, Lite has stunted its future growth.

That's a tough thing for any agency to reverse, especially given the pressure to produce a short-term sales kick. Coveted as these accounts are, Wieden, Chiat, and Burnett are learning a hard lesson. As adman Gerrold Rubin explains: "Sometimes it's easier to create a brand from scratch than to change one, because the concrete is already hard."

Rubin should know: His agency helped transform Honda from an econo-box into a best-seller. But he had a decade to do it. That's a luxury these three agencies aren't likely to enjoy.