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Scion casts Net for edgy young dudes

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Posted: 04/27/07 09:19 AM

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Scion casts Net for edgy young dudes
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By Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
TORRANCE, Calif. — Please don't read this. It's probably not meant for you.

Not unless you're a young man with an artistic bent, in which case Toyota (TM) is fairly sure you have already tripped across one of its edgy Internet ads, cryptic movie trailers or other odd marketing placements for the redesign of its boxy Scion xB that goes on sale next week.

Toyota is actively trying to isolate Scion messages from the tragically unhip by relaunching the xB without any advertising on television or in mainstream publications.

Auto industry executives say such a move is highly unusual. The only other recent example was in 2000 when Volvo tried an online-only approach to launch a sedan at the height of dotcom mania.

"It's a brilliant and gutsy stroke," says consultant Gordon Wangers about Toyota's ad strategy. "It gives them credibility in some regard with the counterculture."

Not that Toyota thinks it needs the cred. From Scion's beginning, it has tried to tightly court a single, narrow demographic: male urban trend setters, ages 18 to 35. The belief is that those guys' street cred will pull in customers of all ages. Women, too.

Hence, the online advertising at the expense of TV and print. "Young men spend more time online than they do watching TV," says Scion's boomer-age chief, Mark Templin.

But entirely shutting off the mainstream is a radical notion. Former Hyundai Motor America CEO Bob Cosmai, now a consultant, says medium-sized automakers may spend up to $50 million to launch a vehicle, with the bulk going to TV and print. Even the original xB, the toaster-shaped van that has come to define the brand, had at least some TV advertising behind it when it launched in 2003. And Toyota has set an ambitious target for sales of the shapelier new xB: 42,500 this year and 60,000 next year.

Toyota tried to whip up grassroots anticipation in December by inviting 300 owners, Scion club members and selected alternative-press reporters for a private showing of customized versions of the new vehicle, two months before the official unveiling at the Chicago Auto Show.

Then the Scion team followed up in February by launching a website, as the centerpiece of its teaser campaign. Movie trailers, posters and billboards pointed viewers to the site, filled with video content and games, without giving away that it was to promote a Scion.

Scion will have billboards in urban areas as part of the xB launch that poke fun at its polarizing looks. One, for instance shows an xB with messages on either side. One says, "Just as gorgeous as it used to be." The other says, "Just as hideous as it used to be."

But Templin says the goal was to design a billboard campaign that's "almost invisible to the mainstream." Mom, dad and grandpa may see the board, but the message won't stick. Young men will think it's cool.

Likewise, Scion is becoming more selective about the Internet sites on which it chooses to advertise. The popular, youth-oriented personal page site no longer ranks because it "is way too mainstream" now for Scion, Templin says. Instead, Scion buys placement on sites like Second Life, in which visitors assume a character as they navigate through a digital landscape.

In 2000, Volvo put its entire ad budget for the launch of the S60 sedan into a campaign on America Online. Spokesman Soren Johansson says it was a success, but AutoPacific consultant Jim Hall remembers otherwise. "They thought they could do it online, and it died the death of a thousand razors," Hall says.

Toyota, he says, can make a success of its unconventional campaign because it's not expecting to sell huge volumes by taking the exclusivity approach.

Indeed, Scion second-in-command Steve Haag says: "Could we sell more cars tomorrow if we put an ad in Newsweek and USA TODAY? Yeah, we probably could, but that's not why we're here."

Templin says the strategy is in line with the Scion brand's goal of taking risks, even if it means occasionally falling flat on your face.

"Someone asked me the other day (what) I wanted to do this year, and I said 'I want to fail more.' "  

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