RVs And Minivans Reposition To Stay Afloat

Tempus not only fugits, it also has the tendency to reverse the fortunes of high-flying products with supersonic speed. Take the Concorde, for instance, which that old nemesis of breakthrough ideas, ROI, eventually did.

Straddling terra firma are two classes of vehicles that were rolling along quite nicely, thank you, until they got blindsided by the train wreck of the economy on the one hand, and the curse of the phrase "soccer mom" on the other. We're talking RVs and minivans.

In a story headlined "Mocked as Uncool, the Minivan Rises Again," the New York Times' Nick Bunkley looks at the multitude of ways that a multitude of automakers are trying to make the minivan relevant to postmodern soccer moms and dads. The story features a couple of other "un" words besides uncool: unashamed [of driving] and unflattering [minivan label]. And an alternative online headline gives further indication of the problem the vehicles face: "Minivans Avoid That Name In Search Of A Sporty Image."

What product ever succeeds by claiming to be something other than it really is?

It all started with those "Swagger Wagon" ads for the new Toyota Sierra, as loyal readers will recall. Now Honda has a spot for its 2011 Odyssey with music by metal band Judas Priest (not exactly contemporary but not Wayne Newton either). Chrysler has dubbed the 2011 Dodge Grand Caravan the "man van." And Ford is calling its seven-passenger C-Max -- in effect, it's first minivan since 2006 -- a "people mover." "Many are hard pressed to notice it has sliding doors," a Ford spokesman tells Bunkley. "That wasn't by accident."

Meanwhile, sales of recreational vehicles boomed from 2000 to 2007, but started skidding as soon at the economy went south. James R. Hagerty reports in the Wall Street Journal that RV makers are creating vehicles that might appeal to a younger demographic by accommodating their kayaks and mountain bikes (Airstream). They are also building more fuel-efficient trailers to lure travelers who are tired of airports and motels.

"Our best commercial for our industry is the airlines," Winnebago CEO Robert J. Olson recently told analysts. "If you haven't gone on an airline lately, it's a real hassle." And John Lenzo, a Colonial Airstream dealer, tells Hagerty "the recent bed-bug scare helped make people warier of motels."

You know you're in trouble when you have to use negatives to make your product look positive, no?

Here's what it has come down to. There's a new word floating about, motor-homeless, that mostly has negative connotations, Paul McFedries reports in Word Spy. One of his citations is a Fox news report out of the epicenter of where all the loose nuts and bolts, according to someone, have been accumulating for years.

"Welcome to Venice Beach, California," intoned William La Jeunesse in a news report last Aug. 10, "where tensions are rising between homeowners and the motor-homeless who take over entire streets living out of campers, vans, buses, trucks and RVs."

(Bonus question: Was it Frank Lloyd Wright who said that if you tilted the United States, all the loose nuts and bolts would roll to California, as Time magazine says. Or was it Archie Bunker, as RT Rider contends in this Dodge Challenger forum? Or was Archie inexplicably quoting Frank?)

But all the news is not gloomy.

John Weeks of the San Bernardino (Calif.) Sun thinks that a reader has a swell idea when he proposes that his fair city sponsor a street festival featuring recreational vehicles.

"That's right, the RV Rendezvous, as we shall call it for now, would take place each year in January when all the 'snowbird' people are here from around the country," he writes. "The event would be a midwinter equivalent to the great Stater Bros. Route 66 Rendezvous, that one featuring cars, that is held each summer."

Pretty clever. If you can't beat 'em, why not embrace 'em? But what to do about the minivan? Hmmmm. How about this?

NASCAR is having problems, too, right? How about a new race on the circuit, the Mall of America 500, featuring people-mover drivers doing laps around the parking lot of our country's iconic shopping center? Pack the whole family in the van, why don't we? And throw in a one-hour shopping spree at the 250-mile mark where the driver's spouse and kiddies get out and spend a predetermined amount of cash for an hour at the shops of beleaguered retailers. Cameras catch it all, of course, for a new Fox reality show.     

Originally published in MediaPost's Marketing Daily on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011 

    Copyright © 2013 Thom Forbes, all rights reserved. Contact Thom Forbes