CAR REPORT: In Pole Position - There is BMW and then there is Nissan and Citroen. But can the latter pair achieve the status of the former?

Last April was a bad month for Ford. It was the month in which David (Renault), with just over 8 per cent UK market share, beat Goliath (Ford) with 18 per cent to take the top slot in the new car sales charts. The French car maker sold 9,300 Meganes while Ford sold 8,000 Escorts. It was the clearest sign yet that yesterday’s minor-league car makers in the UK are fast becoming today’s key players.

Last April was a bad month for Ford. It was the month in which

David (Renault), with just over 8 per cent UK market share, beat Goliath

(Ford) with 18 per cent to take the top slot in the new car sales

charts. The French car maker sold 9,300 Meganes while Ford sold 8,000

Escorts. It was the clearest sign yet that yesterday’s minor-league car

makers in the UK are fast becoming today’s key players.



Doubtless this new order will herald an even greater choice of

competitive models seeking the attention of an increasingly

sophisticated and value-conscious public. There has arguably never been

a more important moment to get the brand right, that intangible which

helps make a car desirable, when both new and secondhand, and that

insulates it against the worst ravages of depreciation.



Renault knows this. Only recently, its marketing and advertising people

met to ask each other precisely what is Renault’s brand. ’We’re aware of

a situation in the future where we are all so model-focused that we lose

sight of what Renault is,’ said a spokesman. ’It’s all too easy to be

model-led in your advertising, especially when you are gunning for

market share and when you have the big three (Ford, Vauxhall and Rover)

on the run. The problem is, it’s very short-term. It works when the

product is fresh but does more harm than good as the model ages and

buyers move on. You must have a clear brand identity to support you

through that period.’



Brand image is, after all, the thing that appeals to the car buyer’s

emotions, that persuades him to spend more money than he planned to,

which earns his loyalty and which rewards him with a good residual value

(the price someone else is prepared to pay for his car when he has

finished with it). Mercedes has a good image. So have BMW and Jaguar

and, increasingly, so has Volvo. Admittedly, all are prestige marques

but that’s not the reason they have a good image in the eyes of car

buyers. They have a good image because each marque knows exactly what it

is, and has done so for years.



Contrast their images with those of, for example, Nissan and

Citroen.



Car buyers do all the time but find that, apart from styling, there’s

very little to choose between volume makes like these - certainly

nothing you can sink your emotions into. Their image seems to change

with every model and every seasonal offer. A few months ago, the Nissan

Almera was the choice of two fictional TV policemen, the Sweeney’s Regan

and Carter, heroes in their day but this time around sent-up big time

Meanwhile, the Citroen Xsara plays for cheap headlines and chat-show

feminist outrage by featuring Claudia Schiffer stripping. The problem

is, though one car may be more reliable or look better than the other,

when push comes to shove, neither grabs car buyers’ emotions. As a

result, in the absence of a strong brand image, the decision to choose

one over the other comes down to price. And in three years’ time these

models will sell for only about 35 per cent of their new price, because

used-car buyers are similarly unmoved by old Nissans or Citroens. The

new car buyer has lost a fortune and will never buy ’that’ make again.

Brand loyalty just isn’t at issue.



And that’s the future of an increasing number of cars built and marketed

by manufacturers devoid of a clear brand identity, despite being

obsessed with shifting metal and winning market share.



’Anyone can build a car, not everybody can build a brand,’ David Barker,

managing partner of the communications agency, Mountain View, says.

’Volume car makers don’t know who they are so they just end up

modelling. They get greedy and soon they are entering market sectors

they have no business being in. It’s why Renault can sell the Megane but

can’t sell the Safrane.



Others try niche marketing to hide the fact they don’t know who they

are, but they just end up diluting what brand they have.



’Consistency is the key,’ says Barker. ’First Ford had the Cortina, then

the Sierra and now the Mondeo. With each radical change in model it has

lost its market and had to regain it. The same mistakes keep being made

in car makers’ branding strategy. They are one thing one minute and

something else the next.’



But Steve Saxty of the motor industry consultants, Automotive Answers,

reckons the problem goes deeper than mere model changes and the battle

for sales chart supremacy. ’The forthcoming changes in the Block

Exemption rules governing dealers’ and manufacturers’ trading

relationships could spell the end of the traditional franchised dealer

system,’ says Saxty.



’Some manufacturers will find themselves having to appeal to car buyers

directly without a big dealer network doing the hard work of pulling

them into the showrooms. They’ll need to develop strong brands that

customers will gravitate to. Consistency will be key.



’Despite its separation from VW, Audi has presented a very consistent

image, evolving rather than changing over-night. Volvo is another whose

brand has evolved,’ Saxty adds. ’It can’t still claim safety as its USP

but instead of dumping it, has glamorised it. BMW is ’the ultimate

driving machine’ and the ultimate brand. It has stayed on-message for

more than 20 years. People buy a BMW rather than, for example, a

3-series saloon.



It is car makers such as Rover (which has dropped its middle-class

’relax’ message and discovered Cool Britannia) that could face problems.

It keeps changing its message but must be careful not to lose the

public. Nissan is another guilty of this mistake. Renault’s brand is

getting stronger but is still too Clio-dominated.’



But having a strong brand is not only about being able to shed

underperforming dealers. ’A strong brand boosts profits (because you can

ask premium prices) and reduces the need to discount,’ says Saxty. ’More

important, it boosts customer loyalty so that when your new model is

three years old you’re not forced to throw more money at it to keep it

in the public eye.’



Meanwhile, some car makers have already signalled a shift from a

distributor- to a manufacturer-controlled market approach. With the

establishment of a European manufacturing base, Toyota is free of the

old import quota restrictions that kept it a niche player in the UK. Now

its eyes are firmly on increasing market share. Last January, its

Japanese parent company, TMC, took a 51 per cent holding stake in the UK

distributor franchise, a move which is expected to result in a far

greater emphasis on the product and a huge increase in the advertising

spend. ’We are moving from being a niche manufacturer to a volume

player,’ a spokesman says.



The changes will inevitably lead to that advertising crossroads facing

all car makers: whether to take the brand- or product-led route. Many of

the major decision-makers at leading agencies accept that there are now

two distinct approaches to car advertising: brand-led (BMW) and

product-led (Nissan, Citroen et al). Interestingly, there’s no

snobbishness. ’It’s horses for courses,’ says one creative director.



Paul Uhart, vice-chairman of Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, holder of the

Citroen account, has no problem with product-led advertising, as long as

it is supported by the brand message. ’It’s a battle out there. Look at

Spain to see how the UK will be in a few years. There’ll be a whole

clutch of market leaders, not just two or three, each with about 10 per

cent of the market. We want some of that action. We want people to talk

about Citroen but we want them to talk about the cars, too, hence our

Claudia Schiffer ad.’



Neil Christie, managing director of the Nissan account holders, TBWA,

agrees desperate times call for desperate measures. ’Competition is

intense and we have to be sharper in our communication.’ The car maker

has dropped its disparate ads, ranging from the ’ask before you borrow

it’ campaign for the Micra to the 70s Sweeney pastiche supporting the

Almera. In their place is a simpler ’tell it like it is’ approach.



’Product-led advertising works for us. It’s hard to see what more we

could say about Nissan that we aren’t already saying through individual

models. In this market, people buy models not a brand. The opposite is

true for BMW, where people buy as much BMW as they can afford. Brand-led

advertising may work for BMW but it wouldn’t work for Nissan.’



It’s a view echoed at Vauxhall where, in a recent Campaign interview

focusing on the launch of the new Astra, marketing director, Declan

O’Mahony, said plans for a brand-building push had been shelved. ’We

will rely on a product-led marketing drive.’



Everywhere you look, it seems some car maker or other is engaged in

re-inventing itself to meet a changing market. Take Skoda. Once the butt

of jokes, the VW-owned Czech car maker is about to launch a bold new

family saloon in the cut-throat fleet market, a sector obsessed with

monthly contract hire rates and residual values. ’We are rejuvenating

the whole brand,’ Steve Watson, account director at the agency, Creative

Strategy, says. Skoda claims its last new model, the Felicia, attracted

thousands of customers to Skoda. It must repeat the trick with the

Octavia if the model is to succeed. Conquest business is the car makers’

Holy Grail but the trick for a bright new Skoda, and the Octavia in

particular, will be keeping buyers loyal once it competes with the big,

product- and price-obsessed players. Worse, if Skoda’s brand developers

cannot shake off the car maker’s shaky reputation, its cars will bomb on

the used market, sending contract hire companies running.



Mitsubishi is another niche player seeking a fresh identity and with an

eye on increasing market share. Its new Carisma model, which is powered

by the super-efficient GDi petrol engine, gives it a green edge for an

agency to get its teeth into; while its NedCar manufacturing plant in

Holland offers a route around EU import quotas. However, growing stocks

of used Carismas and reports of falling residual values prove that a

manufacturer’s image is not built on a single technical feature.



Standing above all this is the ’ultimate driving machine’. Jeremy

Hemmings, group director of WCRS, which has held the account for 20

years, says the secret of success in a changing market is ruthless

adherence to a set of brand values. ’BMW’s values are quality, technical

excellence, performance, exclusivity and the driving experience, and we

stick by them to the letter,’ he says.



An agency spokesman says this consistency extends to the style of the

ads. ’You’ll never see people in them - actually, we have huge arguments

about whether to include them - and they’ll always be precise, cool and

beautifully shot. But all this is only 50 per cent of the effort. The

rest is in ensuring the message is communicated in the same way, for

example, through our dealers. It is important their actions echo the

brand values.



A lot of car advertising is confectionery, designed just to shift

product.



BMW is about the longer term.’



Which is where we came in. On the one hand, BMW, with its strong

identity and a range of exclusive, sought-after models and on the other,

the likes of Toyota and Nissan scrabbling for a clear brand but only

having the time to be product-led in their advertising while the

accountants push for ever greater market share. Will these car makers

ever do a BMW and develop a brand that car buyers will pay a premium for

and remain loyal to? It’s not impossible. Look at how VW has polished

its halo on product-led advertising shot through with the brand’s themes

of value for money, quality, dependability and driving pleasure, while

fighting tooth and nail in the volume sector. All the rest, take note.



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