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Secret Weapon Gains Traction With 'Honda Helpful'

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LOS ANGELES Now a year since its inception by creative director Dick Sittig, Southern California Honda Dealer's "Honda Helpful" campaign is gaining traction, according to Pat Adams, managing director of Secret Weapon Marketing.

The independent Santa Monica, Calif., agency's estimated $25 million local campaign is the first launched by a major Honda dealers group since 2006, when American Honda Motors, Torrance, Calif., eased 12-year restrictions on dealer advertising formerly derived from the automaker's lead shop, independent RPA.

Launched last February, Sittig built the broadcast part of the campaign around humorous situations wherein Honda dealers, out to demonstrate their gratuitous honesty, are asked to do ridiculous chores by potential Honda customers, a psychological reversal of dealer abuse. To give the effort seasonal twists, during Halloween, for example, ads revolved around dealers at parties wearing their signature blue shirts as being dressed in costume.

The insight at work is simple, Adams explained. "People don't like coming into dealerships," he said. "Since 1976, car dealers have polled as the least trustworthy people, until recently when telemarketers took over."

Adams said the campaign represents the idea pitched to dealers: "In car dealer advertising, everyone is doing the same thing: loud music, 'there's never been a better time to buy,' etcetera. We told them they can't act like everyone else, meaning they should tell the truth." 

The campaign has made extensive use of street teams. Secret Weapon dispatched four teams of five actors playing Honda dealers be helpful 15 days per month. The teams have done Boy Scout-ish deeds, from helping people load lumber at Home Depot to walking them across the street with umbrellas on rainy days and handing out water at the Honda-sponsored Los Angeles Marathon. They also paid for fill-ups for unsuspecting Honda drivers at gas stations.

The program peaked in January when do-gooder winners of the "Honda Helpful Awards" won new Hondas.

"Dealers like it," Adams said. "They understand the need to do something different. And it gains your attention without ignoring the deal. I mean, you will see the lease rate on the Accord, for example."

Even though local sales are flat, the campaign is working as planned, according to independent research. OTX's quarterly reporting for Southern California Honda shows that "attribute ratings for Honda dealers and salespeople are up," while "attribute ratings towards competitive dealers and salespeople are flat or down," said Alice Gold, vp, marketing insights, OTX, Los Angeles.

OTX reports that when the campaign began in February 2007, Toyota was beating Honda in the "likelihood to visit the dealer" two to one. By last fall, Honda had evened the score. Those who recognize the Secret Weapon ads are 61 percent more likely to visit a Honda dealer than before the campaign launched.

The ads are "a nice complement to what [RPA] is doing," Adams said. "It's not just a different version of what they are doing."