campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 12 December 2003 12:00AM
Isn't it nice for Honda when things just work? Not only will its "cog" commercial go down as an all-time great but one of the most eloquent expressions of a company's confidence about its product and positioning.
For setting clear objectives in its marketing strategy and its sanctioning of mould-breaking creative work to achieve them, the car-maker is a clear winner of Campaign's Advertiser of the Year accolade.
It might have been different, of course, had "cog" merely been a film that flattered to deceive. There have been enough stories of advertising that's been a triumph of style over substance and "cog" could have been another had it not been the product of a clear vision.
Today, the story of "cog" is known well beyond adland's borders. How Wieden & Kennedy's two-minute sequence promoting the Honda Accord shot over five days outside Paris took 606 takes at a cost of almost £1 million.
How five months of meticulous planning and experimentation went into creating a complex chain reaction involving 85 individual motor parts. How engineers, art directors, sculptors and artists all played their parts; the final shot of the vehicle as the molasses-smooth voice of the US author Garrison Keillor remarks: "Isn't it nice when things just work?"
Indeed it is. The ad for a model described as "traditionally the car of choice for fully paid-up members of the pipe-and-slippers brigade" hasn't only been branded "cool" by eight out of ten people in a national survey but was credited with generating more national press headlines than any other advertising-related story in the middle of last year.
Perhaps less well recognised is just what a defining moment "cog" will prove to be, climaxing a period in which Honda worked hard to get its product right. Equally importantly, Honda's UK marketing team, led by Simon Thompson (shown opposite), have come up with a clearly defined view of how the brand should be perceived.
Honda had been selling cars in Britain for 28 years. Its problem was that it offered little differentiation from a plethora of other overseas car brands jostling for share of the UK market. Sure, its models were well-engineered and reliable but sexy they weren't.
Making Honda cars emotionally desirable was always going to be an uphill task. In common with other Japanese car manufacturers, Honda had lost touch with its customers. Not only had the Japanese failed to react to the start of the diesel boom but its designs looked outdated and shapeless to Western motorists at a time when Peugeots were getting mistaken for Renaults and Fords for VWs.
Now, those mistakes have been rectified. On top of its established reputation for reliability, Honda's designs now take into account Western tastes.
Visually, as well as technically, they are a match for the likes of BMW, Audi, Saab and Volvo.
The challenge so well surmounted by Honda in its advertising under the theme "The power of dreams" has been in maintaining its reputation for fine engineering the equal of any German marque without being perceived as cold.
"Cog" has set a style and tone of voice for Honda that has set it apart from the lifestyle-driven formats which have become the norm for car commercials.
As Rooney Carruthers, the creative director of Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest, puts it: "It is eminently watchable and has subtly built a distinctive vocabulary for the Honda brand."
He makes an important point. Honda hasn't allowed "cog" to fizzle and die like a spent rocket but is using it to introduce its new personality - human, plain-speaking, optimistic and honest.
Certainly, "cog" seems to be imbuing Honda's follow-up advertising with a new confidence. Would the Honda of yesteryear have been brave enough to make a commercial for the redesigned Civic, its best-selling model, which actually makes a virtue out of its reliability and attempts to turn it into an icon of modern practicality?
The result is a refreshingly bullshit-free spot which compares the Civic to brilliant examples of practical design that are taken for granted.
"This is the third Honda ad in a row to avoid the 'gratuitous car shot' approach and this is perhaps the reason why the brand is responsible for some of the freshest work on TV at the moment," was Campaign's verdict.
Moreover, the company has had the courage to promote the benefits of one of its prized bits of energy-saving energy technology, the Integrated Motor Assist engine, with advertising in its own right rather than using it as a selling point for a particular model. Tellingly, neither the IMA engine nor the Civic, Honda's first model to incorporate the technology, have featured in the ads.
The work neither patronises nor bamboozles with scientific facts and figures but focuses instead on the joys of "happy braking" which attempts to intrigue drivers about a new kind of energy source and gets them to question why and how they currently use energy.
How well all this will work remains to be seen. Honda has begun a long journey but the early signposts are promising. Since the debut of "cog", visits to Honda's website quadrupled and calls to its contact centre tripled.
What's more, sales for the first quarter of the year rose by 25,000 - up 10 per cent on the previous year and setting Honda well on the way to hitting a 3 per cent UK market share. A just reward for an advertiser whose personality change has resulted in some truly iconoclastic work.
Recent winners: Scottish Courage (2002); COI Communications (2001); Heinz (2000); French Connection (1999); McDonald's (1998).
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk