'Car marketing is so horribly clichéd' says ex-Skoda marketing director

Chris Hawken, the marketer behind transforming perceptions of Skoda from ridicule to cool, has some serious words for the automotive industry. He is now group marketing director at Subaru and Isuzu UK, a move he made for greater creative autonomy.

I’m a strong believer in great marketing being able to lift brands. Honda’s inspired marketing with the likes of ‘Cog’ is a case in point. It made the brand much stronger than it arguably deserved to be during the years when it had very little new product.

But, at the moment, we’re in a terrible situation where it’s extremely hard for marketing to lift some car brands. The UK market – always previously renowned for its creativity – is increasingly being controlled and stifled by central marketing departments (often in Germany) and by those who don’t understand our mentality.

'Lowest common denominator creative'

This centralised marketing approach puts in place dreadful processes which lose any kind of creative advantage a brand might have. For these reasons, the market ends up with dreadful, clichéd car ads: if you try to satisfy 29 markets, you are going to end up with clichéd car shots and lowest common denominator creative which never talks to a specific community or country.

It's greatly distressing as a marketer to know that you are sometimes destroying your brand, not building it

And it’s getting worse. Back in the nineties UK marketers were left alone more. We had our own, bigger budgets and more freedom to do our own thing. We could be more maverick and guerrilla in tactics. Now, though, there are a lot of frightened people in business who just want to do what makes their colleagues happy and not the right thing for the brand.

Of course, if you ask consumers about what they want to see in a car ad in research, they will always say they want to see more of the car and the specifications. But they don’t! They want to be excited by a brand. They want to feel emotionally engaged and understand why they should be considering a certain car brand – that’s the role of advertising. German car marketers tend to want to see traditional TV  ads full of specification and it’s difficult to make them understand that this approach doesn’t always work in the UK market.

Having worked on some amazingly creative campaigns that have reaped great success from their innovation, this situation saddens me hugely and its distressing as a marketer to know that you are sometimes destroying your brand, not building it.

Localised power

What needs to change? It’s got to be right that local markets have more control over their creativity. in my experience we are often paying for it anyway. There needs to be more respect and support from central offices for UK creative execution. There needs to be more analysis on the effectiveness of car advertising looking at a specific market’s creative versus a Euro-ad as the production cost argument doesn't stack up if you spend millions promoting your brand with forgettable, cliched rubbish

If this trend continues, there’s a real danger that car brands will fail to establish any differentiation and will quickly become homongenised. There’s also a danger that marketing talent will get more and more frustrated and leave the industry. And don’t get me on to the ills of European-wide agency agreements and Euro beauty parade pitches where the best market wins.

Often the gatekeepers' idea of bold marketing is marketing that just shouts 

The saddest thing about all this is that, often, the gatekeepers not only don’t understand, but don’t want to understand the UK market. Their idea of ‘bold’ marketing is often marketing that just ‘shouts’.

Naturally, economy of scale is a sensible global goal, but if car brands take a centralised approach to marketing they need to realise that they have an enormous responsibility – they need to be prepared to go the extra mile to find an outstanding creative idea that works as a ‘one size fits all’ approach across Europe, and very few adhere to this or take it seriously enough.

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