CARLSBAD, CA – Despite just three months on the job, American Honda’s new marketing chief, Michael Accavitti, has erased longtime cartoon spokesman “Mr. Opportunity” and hired actor Patrick Warburton instead; replaced actor Kevin Spacey with actor Jason Bateman for voiceovers; and ordered up fresh TV commercials for the new ’12 Civic.

He aims to further “tune up” the auto maker’s U.S. marketing by forging greater openness with the media, deepening Honda’s Facebook “friends’” relationship with the brand and connecting dealers with buyers.

“First off, this is a very successful company,” Accavitti, a 27-year manufacturing, sales and marketing veteran of Chrysler, tells WardsAuto at a recent media event here.

“We do a lot of things right,” he says of Honda, adding he and his Chrysler colleagues were amazed by Honda’s relatively low advertising spend but relatively high market share as up and comers.

But while Honda is doing things right, “guys down in Fountain Valley and in Detroit are doing things ‘right-er,’” he says. Fountain Valley refers to the Southern California city where Hyundai has its U.S. sales and marketing headquarters.

Hyundai and the Detroit Three are getting a lot of media attention right now, Accavitti says, which does not favor a “Steady Eddie” company such as Honda.

“We have great product, but everybody likes the underdog, the story about rising stars, the turnaround story,” he says. “That has kind of worked in the favor of some of our competitors.”

Hyundai and sister-brand Kia, along with General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, all share a willingness to open the books on new technology – talking about what’s in their development pipelines months or years ahead of market release, Accavitti says.

The new marketing chief would like to see Honda “loosen up” talk of its research and development activities, without giving away all of the auto maker’s trade secrets.

“I’m fortunate in being the new guy,” he says. “I get to come in and peek behind the curtain at what’s going on. And yeah, we got beat up in Consumer Reports this year with the Civic. But the stuff we’ve got coming down the pipe for both Honda and Acura is just going to blow people away. That gives me the confidence we’re really on the right track.”

Most auto makers have a social-media presence and Honda is no different, with 1.3 million “friends” on its main Facebook page. But Accavitti says just getting people to “like” Honda on the top social-networking site isn’t enough.

Using social media to form close relationships with advertising-averse younger buyers, a group that research-firm Deloitte says shops Honda more than other car brands, is key.

“They have fundamentally changed how they shop and buy things,” Accavitti says of Generation Y. “They can shop in their pajamas at home; they can buy clothes, tickets to a concert. It’s about convenience.

“The guys and gals I talk to realize (purchasing a vehicle) is a huge capital purchase, and they’re not going to buy a car over the Internet – that’s not what we’re suggesting.

“But what they are suggesting is, ‘Let’s make the process a little bit friendlier, so I don’t have to deal with the hard sell.’ And that is a cultural change that’s going to take some time.”

Ideally, Accavitti wants Honda’s Facebook page to be a matchmaker of sorts, directly connecting dealers with the brand’s friends. “And then you start texting your dealer to arrange test drives,” he says. “That’s where I think the work that needs to be done from a social-media perspective is a good opportunity.”

Gently nudging Honda dealers to have a demeanor (no loud sports coats; no hard sell) with which younger buyers can identify is another goal. Accavitti says the Japanese auto maker’s newness to the market here, compared with U.S. brands, helps.

“We don’t have a lot of Honda dealerships that were around 50 years ago,” he says, adding Honda’s stores also are fewer in number than those of the Detroit Three and, therefore, sell greater volumes and are more profitable.

Regarding traditional media, the switch to spokesmen Warburton and Bateman was driven by the need to project a younger image. “I think he’s breakthrough,” Accavitti says of Warburton, whom he says has a universal appeal.

Consumers 55 and younger best know Warburton as David Puddy, Elaine's on-again-off-again airhead boyfriend in the 1990s NBC sitcom Seinfeld. Others may recognize him from the current CBS sitcom Rules of Engagement or as the voice of Joe on Fox’s animated Family Guy. “They understand him, and he seems to be resonating.”

The youthful-sounding Bateman, despite his wealth, is “a guy who would drive a Honda,” Accavitti says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com