TOKYO - American footballer Emmitt Smith, the Dallas Cowboys running back, would seem an unlikely celebrity endorser for the Toyota Caldina in Japan.
A fairly ordinary sedan, the Caldina isn't particularly known for the power, quickness, raw energy, or Americanness of either Smith or American football. So why did Toyota Motor Corp. pick Smith as the 'tarento' (talent) for those advertisements? Toyota didn't pick him. The US National Football League gave him away.
Eager to expand its audience globally, the NFL approached Toyota several years ago about using its players in Toyota advertisements.
'They offered us a deal at a fraction of what it would have cost,' said Hiroshi Takada, general manager of Toyota's marketing services division. The going rate for such an endorsement deal 'would have been ¥100 million,' or close to $1 million at current exchange rates, if it were in the USA, he said. 'So it met our efficiency guidelines.'
The Japanese car market is in an extended slump along with the Japanese economy overall. Meanwhile, carmakers have been forced to use their reduced marketing budgets to compensate for falling loyalty rates amid major shifts in consumer preferences. So marketers here have been forced to make efficiency their mantra. Often, that has meant rethinking the value of paying a foreigner to attract attention to an advertisement.
'We've kept our focus on efforts to increase the efficiency of our spending. For several years, that has been our mission,' said Takada.
'We're trying to be as efficient as possible,' agreed Shinichi Katsuyama, assistant manager of the advertising department at Honda Motor Co.'s automobile sales division. 'For the past three years, money has been tight. This year, too, spending won't rise. It's still tough.' So Honda is out to achieve what he called, 'Maximum output for minimum input.'
Consider the numbers. In the fiscal year ended March 31, 1999, the latest year for which data are available, only Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. among Japan's carmakers raised its advertising spending to launch new Subaru models, according to the Nikkei Ad Center.
More typical was market leader Toyota, which cut its spending 4.5 percent to $947.9 million. Honda cut its advertising budget 5.7 percent to $532.4 million. Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. each cut its spending by double digits.
Overall auto-industry spending on the so-called Big 4 media of TV, newspapers, magazines and radio fell 14.2 percent in calendar 1999 to $2.4 billion, according to a survey by Dentsu.
The efficiency drive has marketers keen to experiment with alternative marketing approaches, particularly the Internet and other interactive methods. But compared with other media, spending on those alternatives is still tiny. Spending on Internet marketing is doubling every year, but even so it still accounts for only 0.5 percent of the auto industry's total media spending, Takada said.
In contrast, spending on TV has gained as a share of advertising dollars during Japan's decade-long recession. In 1990, Takada said, Toyota spent about half of its advertising budget on newspapers, and 35 percent on TV. Today, TV takes 60 percent of the spending, and newspapers only 25 percent. The reasons for the shift say much about the changing nature of Japan's car market.
To explain, Takada contrasted the advertising strategy for the Corolla, long Toyota's top seller, and for the new Vitz and its siblings, known as the Echo in the USA and the Yaris in Europe.
Today, the typical Corolla buyer is a male in his mid-50s who has been buying the car loyally for years, maybe decades. The Vitz buyer is a woman in her 20s, who until the Vitz came along shunned Toyota's cars as too stodgy. 'We really don't know who those youngsters who buy the Vitz are. They're new to us,' said Takada.
So Toyota has cut its Corolla advertising budget. When the car is restyled, Toyota alerts its loyal buyers with newspaper advertisements, since the Corolla buyer is more likely than the Vitz shopper to read newspapers. Then it relies on dealers to follow up with customer visits and brochures.
On the other hand, it has to advertise to find those Vitz shoppers. TV is best for those video-oriented buyers, Takada said.
Of course, that's not true for all car companies. Import marketers trying to gain attention with advertising budgets that are a sliver of the domestics' often find that TV is not their best media buy, in part because they are crowded out to the less desirable time slots. 'Our dealers are always asking for more TV,' said Rob Bowen, vice president for DaimlerChrysler Japan. But, he said, surveys of buyers found almost no recall of the company's TV advertisements.