CLOSE-UP: Live Issue/Honda - Honda's 'calculated risk' moves ad focus off cars. Honda is hoping to build a bond with consumers via its ads, Jenny Watts writes

No matter where you go within the Honda organisation, you'll never find a glass ashtray. Why? Because the company's founder, Soichiro Honda, was partial to taking regular tours of his establishment, and if his eye fell on a piece of machinery or design not to his liking, he'd throw the nearest glass ashtray at it. This happened so regularly that the company eventually got rid of the ashtrays altogether.

The racing-driving, powerboat racing Honda was far from your archetypal Japanese businessman. His idiosyncrasies have helped to shape the obsession with innovation that Honda believes defines its brand philosophy.

It is the company's point of difference that Wieden & Kennedy London is aiming to articulate in its new £10 million branding drive for Honda UK - the first work from the agency since it won the £24 million account last year from CDP. While in Japan Honda ranks alongside Sony as one of the most respected domestic companies, it's no secret that the car manufacturer is a long way from achieving such market-leading potential in the UK.

In fact, the company trails a long way behind its rivals, with only a 3 per cent market share. It is hoped this sustained advertising burst will help Honda to increase the figure to 5 per cent.

With this campaign, Honda is looking to break the mould of conventional car advertising and tune in to a younger, broader audience. While this might sound like a familiar repositioning brief, W&K's new work certainly approaches it in an unfamiliar way. Comprising three ads, the campaign sees both brand and product-specific work running concurrently. But instead of dwelling on the product features of the car, the main branding ad looks to Honda's heritage to draw its inspiration.

Talking of heritage is not a new phenomenon - Saab has been talking about its aircraft manufacturing history in its advertising for years - but it marks a departure for Honda UK, whose previous, unremarkable campaigns from CDP included high points such as a car driving in and out of mirrors, and the impenetrable "Swindon

campaign.

"We'd look at the way we've traditionally been doing things and it has been more of the conventional campaigns in the style of many manufacturers in the UK,

Paul Ormond, Honda UK's head of PR, says. "We felt that it was time for us to start changing people's perceptions of the brand and go beyond the immediate demands of our dealers."

The launch spot uses computer animation and features a factory tirelessly producing the word "OK", going on to explain the meaning behind its new strapline: "The power of dreams". A second campaign launches the four-wheel-drive CR-V, parodying 4x4 car ads by spoofing the urban use of the vehicles. Other work is for the launch into the supermini sector with the new Jazz marque.

The voiceover for all the spots is provided by Garrison Keillor, the popular US author and public radio show host. According to Russell Davies, the head planner at W&K, Keillor's engaging mid-western drawl, and its unfamiliarity to British viewers, made him the perfect choice. "Because we're telling an interesting and relevant story we knew we had to have a voice that would grab people's ears,

he says. The idea is for the voiceover to become the distinctive tone linking the work with forthcoming campaigns, although time will tell if the public will make the necessary association.

"We wanted something visually arresting,

Davies continues. "We liked the juxtaposition of this high-tech Japanese style and the mid-western voiceover.

It's certainly a departure from the glossy shots that epitomise car advertising, but while Ormond acknowledges that taking the focus away from the car itself is a "calculated risk", Davies maintains that this is not unusual. "You still notice the car because of the contrast,

he says. "We're not hiding the car at any cost. It's about what is the best way of approaching each ad."

However, Honda's marketing department needs to justify to its crucial dealership force that eschewing the safe advertising approach in favour of work breaking new ground is actually a good idea. After all, stock slick car shots are proven to be effective at driving showroom traffic - which is the dealers' ultimate concern. "When you're doing car advertisements, converting the dealers is one of the first things you have to do,

Tony Davidson, W&K's joint creative director, says.

The importance of dealer support is clearly not lost on Honda's marketing division. "Within some quarters of the dealer network, who form our sales channel, they have a very simple understanding and rationale of our advertising,

Ormond says. "When you change tack, you do need to bring them with you and you need to explain it to them."

Honda's new work is banking on building a progressive bond with consumers, with Keillor's persuasive, rich tones becoming the voice of Honda for the next three years. But dealers will doubtless be looking for results.

Still, as Honda is trying to nearly double its sales, innovative advertising must be the way forward.

It is a good, if brave, move. "It is going to take time, we realise that,

Ormond says. "We would not be telling the truth if we said we weren't watching with bated breath. Only time will tell."

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