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‘Father of Joe Isuzu’ Now Says Specialty Is the Best Policy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one remembers Joe Isuzu. (OK, we’re lying.)

American Isuzu Motors Inc. hasn’t aired a commercial with its infamous lying salesman in eight years. Yet when consumers are asked about Isuzu, the fictitious Joe Isuzu invariably comes up.

“We’re probably best known as the ‘father of Joe Isuzu,’ ” said Joseph L. Fellona, vice president for light-vehicle marketing at the U.S. arm of the Japanese auto maker.

That’s a problem for Isuzu, which wants to be known for its trucks, not its erstwhile spokesman. So this month, the Whittier-based company is trying to change its image with ads touting Isuzu as a truck expert.

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The ads glorify trucks and take a playful swipe at cars, which Isuzu doesn’t make. Trucks are portrayed as rugged and authentic, while cars are slammed as bland and wimpy.

The ads also take a shot at luxury car makers such as Mercedes-Benz that have successfully introduced cushy sport-utility vehicles. Declares a print ad for Trooper, an SUV aimed at families: “No silly hood ornaments.”

Auto industry consultants agree that Isuzu, with less than 1% of the U.S. passenger vehicle market, needs to work on its image.

“Our consumer research shows that image--how consumers look in a vehicle and what it says about them--is playing more of a factor in what they buy,” said Wesley Brown, a consultant with Thousand Oaks-based Nextrend. “Other than Joe Isuzu, the brand means nothing” to many consumers.

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Within the industry, though, Isuzu is viewed as a specialist in passenger trucks. In the 1970s, along with Nissan, it helped popularize the mini-pickup in the United States. And in the late 1980s, with help from the fast-talking Joe Isuzu, the Trooper was among the best-selling imported SUVs.

But analysts caution that Isuzu could alienate large numbers of potential SUV buyers by touting trucks over cars. That’s because the fastest-growing group of SUV buyers are people who want the rugged image of a truck but the smooth ride and comfort of a car.

“There are people who buy trucks for function, and they would clearly be positively influenced by ‘truck specialist.’ But those people are shrinking in size compared to the people buying trucks for image,” Brown said.

In previous ads Isuzu hinted at its expertise with trucks, referring to itself as a builder of “adventure machines” and an “SUV specialist"--without slamming cars. But consumers didn’t get the message, says Jeffrey Goodby, co-chairman of Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, Isuzu’s advertising agency.

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“We did it way too indirectly,” Goodby said.

The new batch of ads hits consumers between the eyes. “We don’t make cars,” declares a television commercial for the Trooper.

“Don’t call it a car,” says a print ad for Rodeo, Isuzu’s best-selling SUV. “It gets mad.”

The ads contend that Isuzu’s sport-utilities offer the same comforts as cars, with some advantages. In a TV spot for the Trooper, a toddler strapped in a safety seat enjoys the extraordinary view of a space shuttle flying overhead, while a toddler seated in a car traveling on the same road sees only a guardrail.

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“We needed a personality in the marketplace,” Fellona said. “We looked at other ideas, but we kept coming back to that we build trucks. Why not say what we do?”

Filling the shoes of Joe Isuzu is a tall order for any ad campaign. The fibbing high-pressure salesman--"It gets 94 miles per gallon city, 112 highway!” he exclaimed in one ad--quickly became a cultural icon. In a 1988 address, President Reagan likened Nicaraguan Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega to Joe Isuzu.

“He told lies, but the truth always appeared in type at the bottom of the screen . . . so people saw they were not being snowed,” said New York advertising executive Jerry Della Femina, creator of Joe Isuzu. “He was incredibly charming, so people forgave him when he got caught.

“Isuzu was seen as a fun-loving, truth-telling company.”

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The car maker dropped Joe Isuzu in 1990 because the ads were in a sense too successful--the slick salesman’s popularity overshadowed the trucks. Isuzu says it has never considered bringing back the character.

“Joe Isuzu made Isuzu a household name. But he became the hero in the ads, and the product has to be the hero,” Fellona said. He’s found Joe Isuzu’s legacy particularly hard to shake: “People call me Joe Isuzu about three times a week.”

Isuzu believes it has a potent weapon in its campaign to overhaul its image. The company is preparing to introduce the Vehicross, a $30,000 sport-utility with a space-age design aimed at affluent males. Isuzu hopes Vehicross will spark the same sort of buzz among enthusiasts that the Prowler roadster did for Chrysler Corp. Isuzu plans to make only between 2,500 and 3,000 of them.

Nextrend’s Brown predicts the Vehicross will draw consumers to dealer showrooms who might not have considered Isuzu in the past. And that could boost the sales of other Isuzu models, Brown said, since consumers priced out of a Vehicross might consider a less expensive Trooper, Rodeo or Amigo.

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“It will do wonders for their image,” Brown said.

Isuzu has strong--some might say lofty--expectations for its image make-over. Fellona said he expects an overall sales increase of 10% in 1999, enough to boost Isuzu’s share of the compact SUV market by a full percentage point to 5.5%.

That’s much better than what some analysts are projecting. J.D. Power & Associates, the automotive research firm, predicts Isuzu’s market share will remain flat in 1999 at about 4.2%. Analyst Bob Schnorbus said competition from more popular models by Ford Motor Co., Chrysler and General Motors Corp. will make it difficult for Isuzu to make inroads. Isuzu’s 1998 sales are down 1.1% through August.

For now, the upcoming campaign has at least kindled enthusiasm inside Isuzu. Said Fellona: “The passion is back in our hallways.”

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Sport Stats

Isuzu faces an uphill battle in the market for compact sport utility vehicles. Sales of compact SUVs account for nearly two-thirds of SUV sales, but the segment isn’t growing. And the dominant domestic models are expected to keep their lead.

Compact-SUV market share leaders:

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Ford Explorer: 22.4%

Jeep Grand Cherokee: 13.7

Chevrolet Blazer: 13.2

Dodge Durango: 9.4

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Jeep Cherokee: 7.7

Toyota 4-Runner: 6.7

GMC Jimmy/Envoy: 4.5

Nissan Pathfinder: 3.7

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Isuzu Rodeo: 3.5

Mercury Mountaineer: 2.7

Other: 12.5%

* Based on 1998 sales projections

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Source: J.D. Power & Associates


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