Isuzu Motors America, Inc.

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Isuzu Motors America, Inc.

13340 183rd Street
Cerritos, California 90702-6007
Telephone: (800) 255-6727
Web site:



In an effort to diversify its vehicle lineup, Isuzu Motors America, Inc., designed a new sports utility vehicle (SUV), the Axiom, for model year 2001. At that point Isuzu sold only trucks and SUVs that offered a rugged, truck-like ride. This made the company vulnerable to fluctuations in the truck market in ways that other, more diverse automakers were not. Essentially, every Isuzu line featured vehicles designed to be driven off-road. The company designed the Axiom to offer a smoother ride, in the hopes of luring young suburban drivers. This presented a challenge for the company since the SUV field was a crowded one and Isuzu suffered from poor brand visibility.

Isuzu's low profile was a result in part of its failure to run a major television marketing campaign since 1999. In an attempt to raise its profile, in 2001 the company budgeted $15 million for advertising. It decided to return to TV and contracted San Francisco-based ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners to produce a spot that brought back Isuzu's famed "pitchman" Joe Isuzu. Played by the actor David Leisure, Joe Isuzu had achieved widespread notoriety from 1986 to 1990, when he starred in a series of Isuzu commercials. The humor in the spots came from the over-the-top exaggerations Joe used to "sell" Isuzu vehicles, including claiming one Isuzu had a greater seating capacity than the Houston Astrodome. The new Joe Isuzu spot, "The Call," depicted a now-overweight Joe getting back into shape following a call from Isuzu asking him to come back to work.

Unfortunately the spot, which ran from spring through fall of 2001, did not jump-start Axiom sales. The vehicle missed a modest goal of 12,000 units sold, and Isuzu failed to attract the new consumers that it wanted. The spot met with a mixed reaction and did not enter the national consciousness on the same scale as the original Joe Isuzu spots. Some observers felt that the Axiom's poor sales may have been partially due to the company's decision to offer stronger customer incentives to other SUVs in the Isuzu fleet, the Rodeo and the Trooper. The spot did, however, boost Isuzu's overall brand recognition.


Isuzu Motors America, Inc., was the American subsidiary of the Tokyo-based company Isuzu Motors Ltd. Created in 1981, Isuzu Motors America was responsible for the marketing and distribution of Isuzu vehicles in the United States. In 1971 Isuzu Motors Ltd. began a close relationship with U.S. auto giant General Motors (GM). By 2001 GM had taken a 49 percent capital interest in the Japanese manufacturer. The two companies cooperated in the production of new technologies; for example, beginning in 1997 Isuzu took over most of GM's diesel development. A year later Isuzu assumed most of the responsibility for engineering GM's commercial-vehicle fleet.

The automaker specialized in making trucks. In fact, at the turn of the twenty-first century Isuzu did not sell a single car in North America. This lack of diversity led the company to be vulnerable to downturns in the truck-buying market. As Japan's economy went through a sustained rough patch in the 1990s, Isuzu took major sales hits in its home market. In the late 1980s Japanese drivers bought 190,000 trucks per year, but by 2002 that number had dropped to some 70,000 units. This led to a financial crunch at Isuzu. More pressing for Isuzu Motors America was the struggles at its one North American factory in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Subaru-Isuzu Automotive, Inc., was a joint venture of Isuzu and Fuji Heavy Industries, Ltd., which was responsible for the manufacturing of vehicles for Isuzu and for Fuji's Subaru subsidiary. Combined production at the plant topped out at about 216,000 units per year in 1998, before falling to a mere 186,317 units in 2001. Isuzu was looking to sell its share of the plant to Fuji, though the automaker did not want to abandon the lucrative U.S. market altogether. After the sale to Fuji was completed in 2002, Isuzu would have to rely on partners such as GM to supply more manufacturing aid in the United States. As part of the deal to take full control of the plant, Fuji agreed also to provide up to 30,000 units of the Rodeo and Axiom per year for sale in the North American market.

Isuzu decided that it needed to diversify its lineup. At the time the automaker was known primarily as a producer of durable, high-performance off-road vehicles. Though the company did not want to stray too far from its roots as a truck manufacturer, it felt that a sports utility vehicle (SUV) with some car-like features might give the brand more flexibility. The vehicle would be built on a platform similar to that of the Isuzu Rodeo. It would feature a lower ride height than most SUVs. The auto was primarily designed for street driving. This contrasted with the Rodeo, which was a rugged, off-road vehicle. While still rugged, the Axiom would offer a smoother ride than most trucks. Isuzu hoped that this would open up its brand to drivers who might not ever be inclined to drive off-road.

Isuzu's troubles were compounded by its lack of a strong presence on U.S. television. The company had not run a major TV campaign since 1999, which hurt its visibility among consumers. In the past the automaker had had notable success with the Joe Isuzu character. Joe Isuzu, played by the actor David Leisure, starred in a series of commercials for various Isuzu vehicles from 1986 to 1990. The character, who billed himself as a "company spokesman," was created by the ad agency Della Femina, Travisano, and Partners.

Joe was famous for his outrageous exaggerations (and outright lies) on behalf of Isuzu's vehicles. One spot for the Isuzu Trooper featured Joe promising that if he was lying, lightning would strike his mother. After Joe proceeded to tell the audience that the Trooper was big enough to carry an entire symphony orchestra, that was just what happened. Text often appeared on the screen, chiding Joe for his dishonesty (sometimes a caption would bluntly declare: "He's lying.") His most visible moment was in several well-received spots that aired during Super Bowl XXI in 1987, the most-watched sporting event of the year. The character Joe Isuzu quickly entered the nation's consciousness as an emblem of dishonesty, leading President Ronald Reagan to compare Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, whose Communist regime in Nicaragua was a Cold War adversary of the United States, to the TV pitchman.


Isuzu hoped that by concentrating on drivability, it could lure middle-class SUV buyers. The Axiom's price, which ranged from $26,595 to the low $30,000s, would make the car accessible to the SUV-buying public. Isuzu wanted new drivers, people who might not be inclined to purchase its more rugged Rodeo or Trooper lines. Like many SUVs, the Axiom appealed to drivers in their 20s and 30s. Because the Axiom was largely unknown to this target group, Isuzu set a modest goal of selling 12,000 units for model year 2001.

It was believed that the cynical humor of Joe Isuzu would resonate particularly well with the younger buyers that the Axiom needed to attract. The Isuzu Axiom suffered most from a distinct lack of visibility with its target market, which was exacerbated by the company's absence from television advertising for several years. Because it was anticipated that Joe Isuzu's return would also attract free publicity in the media, the character offered a low-cost way to garner additional attention for the brand.


Isuzu's main concern was positioning the Axiom against other rugged midsize SUVs. The company felt that the Toyota 4Runner and Ford Explorer were comparable vehicles. Toyota, as a Japan-based automaker with a high reputation for quality, was an especially important competitor. Isuzu also considered the Lexus RX 300 and the Volvo V70 Cross Country to be important models to watch. Though both were slightly more expensive than the Axiom, these luxury brands offered similar driving experiences, and many consumers saw them as comparable vehicles.

Other Asian automakers were making major gains in the early 2000s. Their combined market share in 2001 rose to approximately 19 percent, up from about 17 percent the year before. Isuzu had concerns about being overshadowed by these fellow Japanese imports, especially since several featured successful SUVs in their 2001 fleet. By running high-profile marketing campaigns, these competitors had attained much more visibility than Isuzu in recent years. Isuzu felt that it needed to reestablish its presence on TV and then quickly boost the Axiom's visibility.


Isuzu enlisted the agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners to run the company's fist television-driven campaign of the decade. In order to connect quickly with its target audience, Isuzu centered its marketing drive on the best-known figure in the company's marketing history: Joe Isuzu. Goodby would be resurrecting a character created by another agency, Della Femina, Travisano, and Partners, which no longer did business with Isuzu. The key spot featured Joe Isuzu's return to the company following a 15-year "retirement." Isuzu also used other means to get the word out about its street-friendly new Axiom. One of the most prominent of these was a product placement in Spy Kids, a hit family film produced by the Walt Disney Company's Miramax subsidiary. In an unorthodox move Isuzu also cooperated on a remote-controlled toy Axiom that would be sold at RadioShack.

Goodby, Silverstein & Partners was a major advertising agency based in San Francisco. It had created a number of major campaigns, included "Got Milk?" for California Milk Processors. The agency was founded in 1983, and by 2001 it had become a part of the advertising and marketing conglomerate the Omnicom Group.

The return of Joe Isuzu relied on a single 30-second spot titled "The Call." It featured an overweight Joe Isuzu at home, railing against Isuzu's mediocre post-Joe commercials. Suddenly a call came through from Isuzu, calling Joe to work for the company again. To the strains of "The Eye of the Tiger," a hit 1983 song by Survivor that was featured prominently in the film Rocky III, Joe began to work out. Partly because of the sound track, the spot recalled the training montages of the popular "Rocky" film series, though it was not a direct homage. Over the course of 20 seconds the audience saw Joe slim down to his original weight, and the spot closed with him grinning before the camera, ready to resume pitching Isuzu vehicles.

The company decided to bring the character back as a shortcut, instead of launching the Axiom with a brand-new campaign that might need some time to register with consumers. Because of the original spots' popularity, Joe Isuzu was a cultural artifact. He would be instantly recognized by viewers, who would then be more likely to remember the new Axiom. The spot ran for a relatively limited time, beginning in the spring of 2001 and closing in October. It was also made available on the Internet through Isuzu's website.


Through both his original run in the late 1980s and his brief return in 2001, the character of Joe Isuzu in the Isuzu television commercials was played by David Leisure. The actor first made an impression on audiences with a small but memorable turn as an unnamed Hare Krishna in the 1980 hit comedy Airplane!, directed by Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers, David and Jerry. The peak of Leisure's visibility came in 1986, however, when he first played Joe Isuzu. From 1986 to 1990 the serial liar Joe was the company's pitchman. The Joe Isuzu commercials featured Joe making obviously inflated claims about various Isuzu products, once claiming that a new Isuzu had "more seats than the Astrodome." The character was so popular that in 1988 Burger King "borrowed" him for a joint promotion with Isuzu.

Leisure was able to use his newfound visibility to land a major role on NBC's sitcom Empty Nest. The show, which ran from 1988 to 1995, focused on recently widowed Dr. Harry Weston, played by Richard Mulligan. Leisure costarred as Charlie Dietz, Weston's womanizing neighbor. Leisure was a key source of comic relief on the show. After Empty Nest left the air, Leisure continued to work steadily on TV, making guest appearances on such shows as Touched by an Angel, Diagnosis Murder, General Hospital, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.


The response to the campaign was mixed. The advertisements helped Isuzu's brand recognition climb up to 25 percent across all models. The spot fared poorly in USA Today's Ad Track survey, with 21 percent of respondents rating the spot negatively, compared to a survey average of 13 percent. The spots were particularly unpopular with older consumers; 36 percent of respondents over the age of 50 gave the commercial an unfavorable rating. The negative reactions of mature viewers did not bother the company, however, because "The Call" was intended for younger consumers, and they had a higher opinion of the spot. On the bright side, 48 percent of consumers told Ad Track that they considered the spot effective.

Sales for the Axiom, however, were deeply disappointing. By August 2001 only about 2,700 units had been sold, and the company was not able to make up the difference by the end of the year. This was blamed on a number of factors. Many observers said that Isuzu did a poor job of targeting sales incentives at Axiom buyers. In fact, by concentrating its incentives for the year on its other SUVs, the Rodeo and the Trooper, Isuzu might have undercut the Axiom's sales. Also, the units' base price of $26,595 might have been too high for a newcomer to the crowded SUV field. The Axiom did not put up the kind of numbers Isuzu wanted and did not help the company reverse its poor fortunes. It was eventually discontinued in 2004. Isuzu also parted ways with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in 2002.


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                                         Guy Patrick Cunningham