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Authentic Brand Voice: The Saga of Joe Isuzu

May 22, 2018 • Paul Woolf

We often talk about how brands need to be authentic in order to appeal to today’s customer. Brands that use authentic content—that is, content derived from a brand’s heritage and experience—connect with their audiences in a way that is genuine and unique.

How that authentic content is packaged and used, however, provides an opportunity for exceptional creativity. Back in the 1980s, Isuzu cars found an unusual way of differentiating themselves in the U.S. market: finding an authentic brand voice as a counter to the most inauthentic human being on the planet—the made-up character Joe Isuzu.

Now, many of you may have never heard of Isuzu cars, or the three-piece suit called Joe Isuzu. Here’s a bit of the backstory. Back in 1981, Japanese motor manufacturer Isuzu entered the U.S. market, aiming to compete with Toyota and other leading brands but with less than one-tenth of the ad budget. Isuzu’s goal was to build its brand image and increase awareness (and sales).

At the time, car ads for most brands were mundane: hero shots of the vehicle, driven on twisty roads. On top of that were the down-and-dirty promotions and price-heavy ads for local dealers, often focusing on the personality of the dealer principal.

Sales in the first few years after launch of Isuzu in the United States showed healthy growth, albeit from a low base. From a launch market share of 0.26 percent in 1981 (roughly 28,000 vehicles), Isuzu experienced steady growth to a market share of 0.68 percent by 1985, or roughly 105,000 vehicles. Yet Isuzu knew it had to break the mold if it wanted to have any chance at success in this highly competitive market. To get to the next level, Isuzu turned to ad agency Della Femina, Travisano & Partners. In 1986, Joe Isuzu was born.

Joe boasted things that were completely unbelievable—the height of inauthenticity. Cars that cost $10.80 (he had moved over the decimal point). Cars that could drive up mountains, or get 300 miles to the gallon, all with the actor David Leisure’s signature smile and promise “You have my word on it.” Of course, the brand voice would counter each of Joe’s claims with statements that appeared on the screen such as “He’s lying” and generally disputing any claims he made. Here is Joe Isuzu strapped to a lie detector.

The four-year campaign from 1986-1990 dramatically increased consumer awareness of Isuzu. The brand’s authentic voice was overlaid as a counter to Joe Isuzu—in effect, the consumer was in on the joke. Car salespeople were seen then, and now, as notoriously untrustworthy, stopping at nothing to make the deal. Isuzu offered an alternative perspective, putting the character Joe Isuzu into the market as an extremely ingenuine character as a polar opposite to the honest, straight-talking brand and, presumably, its honest, straight-talking real salespeople at the dealerships.

Initially, it worked. Sales stayed in the range of 108,000 to 127,000 vehicles per year during the run of the campaign, accounting for roughly 0.80 percent market share until falling off post-campaign.

In the long run, Isuzu couldn’t overcome challenges such as product design, dealer network support, and lack of marketing funding to compete against the bigger players. By 2008, it had largely exited the U.S. market.

The saga of Joe Isuzu serves as an interesting and highly creative way of building a brand’s voice and authenticity, by doing the polar opposite. Like many other brands, Isuzu joked with its consumer audience, gambling that a nontraditional advertising image would strike a chord with consumers. Anecdotally, I recall speaking with a few Isuzu dealers at the time who said many consumers were almost disappointed that on entering the showroom they weren’t met by slimeball sales hyperbole.

Isuzu retired its shady spokesman in 1990, but people still shout “Hey, there goes Joe Isuzu!” when they see actor David Leisure. It’s one of few cases where the character outlasted the brand in the market.

Interested in how authentic content could revolutionize what you’re doing? Contact us. All our work takes only a few minutes (no, it doesn’t), and it costs less than a sandwich (I’m lying).

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