Hoping that the best years are not in the rear-view mirror for its Acura luxury line, American Honda Motor Co. is shifting into high gear for the introduction of its redesigned 2014 MDX sport utility vehicle.
The U.S. sales arm of the Japanese automaker typically has kept a low advertising profile for Acura. But that's about to change.
This week, American Honda in Torrance plans to roll out its largest-ever national advertising campaign for an Acura model, a marketing push that also is being closely watched in the Los Angeles advertising industry.
American Honda this year dumped Acura's longtime ad agency and called in reinforcements from Boston and New York. The two newly hired firms had to quickly add staff and engineer a campaign that would improve consumers' impressions of Acura.
"This is huge for us," said Gary Robinson, manager of Acura's national advertising and brand. "We want to get this launch right, and we are going to do what it takes to do that. This is a must-succeed."
Acura in recent years has fallen behind such high-end rivals as BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. Last year, Acura sold 156,216 vehicles, according to Autodata Corp., a 25% decline from its peak of nearly 210,000 units sold in 2005.
The Honda brand remains strong: Sales increased 9.7% in June, from a year earlier, but the Acura line suffered a 10.4% decline.
Much is riding on Acura's new "Made for Mankind" ad campaign because the seven-passenger MDX is Acura's highest-volume vehicle, and the brand's best chance to regain traction in the market.
Last year, American Honda decided to open up its account handling more than $860 million a year in advertising spending for both the Honda and Acura lines.
The move ultimately reordered the Los Angeles advertising landscape as the incumbent firm, Rubin Postaer & Associates of Santa Monica, lost two substantial pieces of Honda's business.
Mullen, a Boston advertising firm, picked up the Acura account, and MediaVest of New York took responsibility for media buying for both Acura and Honda. RPA, which formed in 1986 to manage the American Honda account, retained the Honda creative account.
Still, the firm shed about 200 employees because of the reduction in business.
After winning the account March 18, Mullen executives had just 90 days to find office space in the Los Angeles area, hire workers and refine the advertising campaign in time to tout the MDX's arrival in dealerships.
Mullen, which now boasts nearly 750 employees nationwide, intends to eventually employ about 80 people in its newly opened office in El Segundo to work on the Acura account. The company also creates advertising for JetBlue Airways Corp., Zappos.com Inc. and Google Inc.
"This is the most exciting opportunity to come to L.A. ad agencies in the last decade," said Julie Warford, director of creative services and operations for Mullen in L.A.
The native of New Zealand joined Mullen two months ago after leaving another advertising agency in El Segundo. Mullen opened its offices next door to her old firm in 13,000 square feet of office space in a glass tower that overlooks the south runway of LAX.
MediaVest expects to add about 100 people to plan media strategy for Honda and Acura. MediaVest already had a presence in L.A., because its parent company Starcom MediaVest Group handles advertising for Disney Channel, Mattel Inc. and other companies in the area.
Acura's Robinson said the MDX advertising campaign was the largest ever for Acura, although he declined to divulge how much the company will be spending. According to advertising consultant Kantar Media, Acura spent nearly $167 million on ads in 2012, down 15% from 2011.
The company plans to make five television commercials featuring the MDX, an increase over its usual practice of producing two national TV commercials and one region spot for a car model. It recently unveiled the Mullen 60-second spot in theaters and has ordered print ads, billboards, Internet ads.
"It's been crazy. I can't remember the last day that I worked that wasn't 16 hours, but that's fine," said Peter Rosch, executive creative director at Mullen who recently relocated from Boston.
During the pitch process, Mullen asked for extended sessions with Acura engineers and designers, who discussed how they were focused on tapping into technological innovations to create a "synergy between man and machine."
"Our approach was to look right in front of our eyes. We tried to try to find the magic within the words of their chief engineer and then express it in our words," said Mark Wenneker, Mullen's chief creative officer, who also plans to relocate from Boston to Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Rosch and his team came up with the line "Made for Mankind," to compete with BMW's slogan of "the ultimate driving machine" and Lexus' "the pursuit of perfection."
Acura executives acknowledge their vehicles face "challenges of perception" among buyers of luxury vehicles.
Honda launched Acura in 1986 to become a step-up vehicle for Honda owners who wanted to graduate to the next class. The strategy worked. Still, some Honda owners kept buying Hondas, while others migrated to brands that offered more pizazz. To attract new buyers, Acura must drive out from Honda's shadow.
The 60-second version of Mullen's first TV commercial is cinematic in scope and begins with a man scaling a tall tree. It includes an underwater scene, an astronaut floating in space and a scientist interacting with a robot. It is different from most because, these days, car commercials tend to feature voice-overs by famous male actors. On the new Acura ad, the announcer is a woman, who was selected after auditions by more than 100 actors. Acura's usual spokesman, actor James Spader, wasn't enlisted for the campaign.
The ad is meant to convey that as humans have evolved, so has Acura.
The company also intends to make a bigger push in social media. MediaVest brought research into the pitch to show Honda how to better exploit social channels to identify potential car buyers and persuade them that Acura matches their personalities.
"People who are purchasing a car are sending social media signals all over the place," said Chris Harder, executive vice president and managing director of MediaVest's L.A. office. "What social media allows us to do is reach consumers in real time."
The goal is to highlight Acura's relationship with consumers — before, during and after the car purchase, she said.
"We know there is huge power in a brand, and we need a stronger brand to be able to sell more vehicles," Acura's Robinson said. "It's a critical element that we are focused on. It's our goal to make MDX part of the conversation."
[For the record, 12:15p.m., July 10: An earlier version of this story said that Peter Rosch had come up with the promotional line "Made for Mankind," and that Disney Channel and Mattel were clients of MediaVest. In fact, Rosch and his creative team together designed that slogan, and Disney and Mattel are clients of MediaVest's parent company, Starcom MediaVest Group.]