Acura Defines Turf As Japanese Chase BMW

With the upscale divisions of the big-three Japanese automakers all chasing BMW’s benchmark 3 Series, it’s Acura’s turn to zero in on a positioning. It does so in seven new 30-second TV commercials.

Independent RPA in Santa Monica, Calif. unveils the work this week and next for the American Honda Motor Co. nameplate. “Everyone has taken a territory to own,” said RPA creative director Mark Erwin, who partners with cd Pat Mendelson. “We’ve taken advanced living through modern luxury.”

That positioning sets Acura apart from Nissan’s Infiniti, which is emphasizing luxury through design, and from Toyota’s Lexus, which is stressing design and performance. Infiniti and Lexus both unveiled new work earlier this fall. All three campaigns, in their own way, look to chip away at the strengths of BMW.

The new Acura campaign is emphatically urban- and lifestyle-oriented and aimed at young professionals. In “Voices,” one new spot, people rolling in their Acura TLs place wireless office calls and bark out commands for directions and restaurant reservations. The brand’s new voiceover artist, Boston Legal actor James Spader, suggests the confident, master-of-the-universe driver. “Of all its abilities,” he says of the Acura, “listening might be its most impressive.” The new tagline in two spots is, “Always advancing.”

One spot leaves the urban landscape: “Distance” is set on a remote road to demonstrate a radar-guided braking feature. The voiceover explains that a “collision mitigation breaking system” detects an object ahead, warns the driver and “gives your reflexes a head start.”

The campaign is driven by visual effects, with busy frames and optical tricks suggesting magical connections between the driver and the outside world of active lifestyles. In “Pixilated,” everything in a cityscape but the Acura shimmers in digital data blocks, from skyscrapers to water puddles. The voiceover implores drivers to “seize the digital day” with the “computer-enhanced, satellite-linked” Acura.

“Seamless” uses windshield frames and window movement for smooth editing wipes and transitions, creating the illusion of effortless interplay with features like traffic monitoring and restaurant-ratings retrieval.

“A lot of research has led us to carve out this brand identity,” said Susie Rossick, national advertising manager for Acura in Torrance, Calif. “We’ve identified a group that’s in the know, much more independent, looking for things in their car that are part of their lifestyle. They enjoy a level of prestige in being opinion makers.”

At least one analyst believes it’s an uphill battle for Acura. “The biggest problem Acura will always have is that it only exists in the U.S.,” said Todd Turner, principal analyst at Car Concepts in Thousand Oaks, Calif., noting that Acuras are sold under the Honda nameplate abroad. “So, it is easy to attack [the Acura brand] as just a marketing tool. Acura has to work very hard to create a brand for itself because the brand is a facade.”

Lexus, meanwhile, is delivering a luxury plus performance message to contrast with BMW’s singular focus on performance, said Christopher Graves, executive creative director at Lexus’ ad agency, Publicis Groupe’s Team One in El Segundo, Calif. The current campaign, for the beefed-up 306-horsepower Lexus IS, is set predominantly in the European countryside. The dual emphasis is captured in a split-screen technique and a new tagline, “Why live in one dimension?”

Print work features gatefolds with full pages of fictional copy in which fashionable people confess to past fixations with German cars in pulpy pull quotes like, “I was living a lie” and “I cheated.”

“The shift is that Lexus, like the vehicles, is behaving differently, more progressively, in working to this younger target,” said Graves.

The work for Infiniti by Omnicom Group’s TBWA\Chiat\Day attempts “to own design,” said Rob Schwartz, ecd at the Playa del Rey, Calif., agency. “It’s the lens through which we see everything.” The comparatively minimalist spots, playing off an artist’s single-line gestures in paint, chalk and water, use slow-motion photography and undulating red-and-gold silk backdrops to create what TBWA\C\D creative director Dennis Lim calls “seductive luster, [mystery] intended to create allure.”

The focus is more than mere styling, said Schwartz, but design “in the Bauhaus sense of form, function and philosophy. The destination is clear: It’s not about premium positioning, as in Acura being elevated above Honda, but Infiniti as a tier-one luxury brand … competing with Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW.”

Through October, Acura unit sales are up 8 percent over 2004 to 177,000 units. Infiniti is up 5 percent to 113,000 units. Luxury-car leader Lexus is up 4 percent to 242,000 units. BMW is 1 percent higher in sales, to 216,000 units. Those figures come from Car Concepts.

Ad-spending levels are comparable for all three nameplates, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. Acura spent $225 million in 2004 and $150 million through August of this year; Infiniti spent $210 million last year and $155 million through August; Lexus spent $235 million last year and $150 million through August.