CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER - CHRIS BROWN. Honda's marketing machine undergoes a service. Chris Brown is determined to raise the company's UK profile, Jeremy White says

In 2002 the car industry will undergo a transformation that will

force car manufacturers to change the way they market themselves. The

removal of block exemption will mean that motor manufacturers will no

longer be allowed to exclusively sell their cars through franchised

dealerships.



To the motor industry, this represents a sea-change. Car manufacturers

stand to lose much of the control they hold over their customer base. A

year from now, retailers will be allowed to sell any brand of car they

want.



All this will mean two things for the likes of Ford and Mercedes: they

will have to develop their existing direct relationships with customers

and, most importantly, strong brands will be vital.



Honda knows that the motor market will become far more brand focused and

this has been the main impetus behind its search for a new agency to

handle its pounds 20 million above-the-line task.



Honda's customer communications manager, Chris Brown, the man in charge

of the pitch process, also knows he has to do something about the record

pounds 320 million loss that his company posted in Europe last year,

pounds 59 million of which came from the UK. Clearly, something's not

getting done right.



"There are going to be some big structural changes within the industry,"

Brown says. "There will be two types of brand by 2004/5: the strong ones

that will compete on brand values and the weak ones who will compete on

price.



"We looked at our objectives and we decided that because of our new

brand direction, we needed a new set of resources. It was not a question

of being dissatisfied with our previous agency."



The switch to Wieden & Kennedy last week saw the client drop both The

Leith Agency and CDP from its UK roster. This is especially painful for

CDP, given its seven years with Honda and the crucial place the business

held in its currently depleted account list.



The fact that CDP has been retained to handle Honda's media will come as

some solace, but there is no disguising that this is a heavy blow at a

particularly vulnerable time. "There are phases in a company's

development and the business partners it works with - and we just

naturally came to the end of our phase," offers the agency's managing

director, Simon Myers.



To give CDP its due, Honda has in the second half of the 90s doubled its

sales and brand share in the UK, and the agency has had a hand in this.

However, CDP's creative work has come under fire for being disparate and

inconsistent, switching between focusing on brand and product. Myers

counters that the product focus was on the client's instructions.



"I think there has been a growing recognition within the company about

the importance of the brand," he says. "Honda wants to become a stronger

brand - rather than be a company that sells cars, it wants to be a

company that people buy cars from."



Brown, who says he has spent most of his life at Honda, testifies to the

changes at work within the company. "We are incredibly passionate, even

though our current personality perhaps doesn't show this," he says.



"We are looking for people to share our ambitions and that is what we

were trying to evaluate during the pitch process. We don't want to be

average anymore. This is not a criticism of CDP, it's a criticism of

ourselves."



Cue the formation of Brown's "Dream Factory", a collective consisting of

PR, media and ad companies. According to W&K London's managing director,

Amy Lawson, this unit will provide "services that go beyond advertising

- pulling specialists together to brainstorm across the business".



The "Dream Factory" line-up now consists of Team LGM, Nexus, The Russell

Organisation, CDP Media and W&K. To stir the creative juices further,

Brown wants to mix up creatives and planners from different

agencies.



"I'm interested in the ideas, not where they come from," he

explains.



Lawson confesses that she has been courting Brown for a while. "He and I

have been talking since I have been at W&K," she says. "He wanted an

agency to help them discover their voice. In the US, Australia and

Japan, Honda has a much more positive image - in the UK, it's not even

on the map. To build the brand, they've got to tell their story -

they've got to make the brand come to life"



It's clear that Brown will want an active role in the company's new

advertising direction. He has something of a reputation for championing

good creative work. "I think he'd quite like to be the creative

director," Lawson laughs.



"He's very emotional and passionate. It's been almost a physical pain

for him that the brand has not realised its potential."



And Brown has had to wait to put things right. "I've worked with 34

agencies over the past five years and I'm up to my 18th TV campaign," he

says.



"This has allowed me to see a lot of agencies and separate the good from

the bad."



Topics