Dealers style showrooms to get outdoorsy customers to trek on over Although it isn't likely people will be heading to the local Ford dealership to plan their next hiking trip, dealers nationwide have started to respond in major ways to a Ford Motor Co. sport/utility vehicle-advertising program.

Ford has lumped all its SUVs, the Explorer, Expedition, Excursion, Explorer Sport Trac and upcoming Escape under its "Outfitter" program - giving dealers who meet sales goals outdoor equipment to display in their showrooms.

But more and more dealers are taking it to the next level, launching clothing lines, creating screen savers and even helping customers find the resources they need to take their Ford SUV into the wilderness or on a fishing trip.

The program, promoted by ads from J. Walter Thompson, in Detroit, under the "No Boundaries" theme remains relatively new.

Efforts to win grass roots authenticity for an outdoor campaign are not unique. General Motors has teamed up with The North Face on its new Avalanche SUV and Subaru has a long-standing relationship with skiing, cycling and other outdoor organizations.

Mazda trucks support motocross racing. Many other automakers sponsor Gen X type extreme sports or their athletes - notwithstanding the massive support of golf, tennis and more traditional sports.

Automakers are looking for ways to reach consumers in more meaningful ways than in TV commercials they can ignore or pages in a magazine they can turn past.

The thought is that if you reach people in local activities, they're more likely to consider the efforts sincere - as opposed to seeing the corporate sponsor on a banner or a drinking cup.

Ford's program takes it a step further, encouraging the dealers to add their own entrepreneurial flair to the program. Dealer participation is vital as it becomes more difficult to reach consumers.

In many cases, the dealer base spends as much or more in marketing expenses than the factory so a national advertising program with enthusiastic grassroots support can increase penetration and impact many times the initial automaker's investment.

"We've done a lot as far as the showroom," says John Shoemaker, general manager of Riverside Ford in Macon, GA.

But the dealership also has designed special shirts it gives to all SUV buyers and is building a relationship with the Outfitters Association of America (OAA) to provide an outdoors handbook with each sale. In addition to the booklet, the OAA will help Riverside SUV buyers set up outdoor adventures.

Riverside also has sponsorships of the Southern Kingfish Association, Donzi Boats and Wayne Pierson's Ultimate Outdoor Experience on ESPN. Riverside has even hooked up with a major horse trainer to provide them with a Ford SUV in exchange for carrying the Outfitters and Riverside logos on the horse trailer, Mr. Shoemaker said.

"Ford can run all the advertising they want. Unless the dealers take it to the next level, it's just a slogan," he says. Ford and JWT have been studying the individual dealers' efforts to determine if some of the programs could be used nationally, according to Mr. Shoemaker.

Laval Perry, dealer principal at All-American Ford in Saginaw, MI says he hooked up with a local taxidermist to supply his showroom with dozens of preserved animals.

Sales personnel even draped camouflage netting over their cubicles.

All-American also installed a gurgling pond in the showroom complete with stuffed alligators, he says.

Doug Carson, general sales manager at Tedd Britt Ford in Maryland, one of Ford's top selling SUV dealerships, says dealers need to enhance the program.

His dealership also has developed a clothing line and has planted live pine trees and a stream and rock garden complete with fish in the showroom.

A staffer at Britt Ford also created Outfitters screen savers for all the computers in the showroom so they would have a common look, Mr. Carson says.

On Saturdays, Britt staffers go Outfitter casual, wearing Outfitter shirts with jeans and hiking boots.

"The customers really enjoy this theme. It's great to offer them more in the showroom," he says.

There are dealers who still aren't displaying anything beyond the minimum equipment supplied by Ford, and they're missing an opportunity, says Steve Cannon, truck operations manager at Bill Collins Ford in Louisville, KY.

Bill Collins is giving away outdoor trips to new SUV buyers monthly and has developed Outfitter hats for all SUV buyers. The dealership also is giving away camping gear and bicycles each week, Mr. Cannon says.

"I'm planning on running with it," he says.

As the program gains exposure, more Ford dealerships are getting involved, says a spokesman for J. Walter Thompson, Ford's advertising dealership.

"There is a lot of enthusiasm for this campaign and dealers are jumping in with both feet," he says.

Jeff Green is senior reporter/Detroit bureau chief for Brandweek Magazine. He's at 248-680-8446 and jgreen@brandweek.com