Carmakers fuel sales with gas incentives

Car manufacturers are turning a setback – rising gas prices – into an oppor­tunity to promote car sales. Last week, the average national price of a gallon of regular gas hit $3.62 — amid predictions from the US Energy Department the price would rise to a monthly average of $3.73 a gallon next month. American Suzuki Motor Corp. and Chrysler LLC each announced purchase incentives offering free gas to drivers.

For the past two years, Suzuki has used $25 and $50 gas cards to reward custom­ers taking a test drive. However, this year it will give consumers who buy a new 2008 or 2009 Suzuki through June 30 a Visa debit card for free gas. Depending on the model, the amounts of the incen­tive will range from $320 to $470. Buyers must also qualify to finance the purchase through Suzuki’s financial services, receiv­ing an initial interest rate of 0%.

According to Ben Hilverda, marketing communications manager of automotive marketing at Suzuki, the offer combines the top two preferred incentives from customers surveyed before launching the program.

“Consumers know that Suzuki [vehicles have] good gas mileage,” explains David Harris, e-business and CRM manager of automotive marketing at Suzuki. He and Hilverda agree that free gas was a “perfect fit” with the car’s evolving image.

Hilverda describes the ideal Suzuki driver as an active consumer who researches purchases and makes decisions independent of social pressure.

“Over the past four to five years, we’ve been chang­ing our product mix, aiming to have a more engaging product rather than a value product,” he adds.

The message is rolling out across chan­nels — in-store displays, online advertising and a Web site went live on May 1, and TV spots debuted today. The car manu­facturer has also sent an e-mail blast to its current customers.

Chrysler also cites rising consumer concern with gas prices as the impetus behind its “Let’s Refuel America” pro­gram, announced earlier this month. Consumers who buy or lease new Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge vehicles can enroll to receive a gas card that immediately lowers their gas price to $2.99 a gallon, and keeps it there for three years, that can be used at participating gas stations.

The promotion, avail­able for 23 out of 30 of the company’s non-SRT models, draws attention to the company’s fuel-efficient cars and sup­ports an ongoing brand effort to expand greener, more fuel-efficient prac­tices at the company.

Once enrolled in the pro­gram, it will become a regular point of engagement with the owner and the Chrysler brand. The company could not be reached for comment and did not expand on the details of future promo­tions around the offer in its release.

This fall, Chrysler will launch two new hybrid SUVs in the US, the Dodge Durango Hybrid and Chrysler Aspen Hybrid. In 2010, the Dodge Ram Hybrid will launch.

During the first quarter of 2008, Chrysler car and truck sales fell 17.6%. Suzuki has also seen a slight dip of 2%.

“It’s hard to predict where the economy is going,” says Suzuki’s Harris. “We try to keep our supply in line with demand.” The company monitored its car sales fig­ures in an effort to create a comfortable ratio, he continues.

Harris says Suzuki anticipates a lift in interest in car purchases based on its promotion, and explains this would help them establish what the baseline level of interest is in the car and plan future manufacturing numbers from there.

Hilverda says the company seeks to keep its sales figures steady with last year’s results. “With the industry being down, anything that allows you to keep sales comparable to last year’s numbers is good,” he says.

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