Close-Up: Newsmaker - Honda marketing chief wants hardworking ads

Jeff Dodds will prioritise making life easier for Honda's dealers over adding to its bulging awards cabinet, John Tylee writes.

Jeff Dodds, the new UK marketing chief for Honda cars, is about to road-test the adage that if you are good enough, you are old enough.

Not only does he assume the role at the tender age of 32, but he takes the wheel from a marketer whose name has become synonymous with some of the most iconoclastic car advertising seen in Britain.

Now Simon Thompson has quit to take on the pan-European marketing role at Motorola, leaving Dodds a legacy that will be tough to sustain. Not least because of "cog", possibly the most famous car commercial of all time.

If he feels weighed down by such a bequest, he betrays no sign of it.

Confident and sharp, he speaks at a speed equivalent to Jenson Button in a Honda F1 racing car. If Thompson was his own man, Dodds has every intention of matching him.

Although the pair barely know each other, their working lives having overlapped only briefly, they share a common heritage. Both are steeped in the Honda culture. And both did the same job - head of marketing for the company's power equipment division - before moving over to cars.

Is Dodds thankful to have left a less sexy area of the business (power equipment embraces such prosaic products as lawn-mowers, generators and boat engines) for something a tad more glamorous?

"I don't think anybody who has been in a powerboat roaring across to Jersey at up to 80mph would say it wasn't sexy," he smiles. More seriously, though, the experience taught him not only how to run a small business, but also how to reach a diverse range of customers with a modest marketing budget.

Looking at Dodds' CV, it seems that much of it has been a preparation for the role he has just taken on. He has helped set up and manage retail centres for Vodafone, and worked as a business manager for a new-car franchise group and a regional sales manager for Volvo. He joined Honda six years ago.

As a result, he can boast a breadth of commercial experience. "Working with very small budgets teaches you the value of things," he explains.

"You always have to get the bangs for your buck and that makes you think carefully when you spend your money."

Does this mean he might wish to pull back from Honda's trademark advertising? Perhaps even re-examine the relationship with Wieden & Kennedy, the agency that created it?

As far as a review is concerned, Dodds is unequivocal. There will be no business up for pitch in the forseeable future. "That's not to say I won't look at the service the agency provides and the value we derive from it," he adds. "But we will have an adult conversation. It won't be a case of somebody new coming on to make a point."

Dodds' comments are significant in the light of the ongoing debate about whether Honda's TV commercials are too self-indulgent and insufficently hardworking. The former marketing chief of a rival car-maker has dismissed them as "mental masturbation" and argues that Honda's sales increases have more to do with its entry into the small and diesel car markets.

If Dodds agrees with this assessment, he is diplomatic enough not to say so. "I loved 'cog', 'grrr' and 'impossible dream'," he says.

He is less enthusiastic about "yume no chikara", a development of the Power of Dreams concept that features company managers with balloons emerging from their ears to symbolise the way in which the Japanese "see" a dream.

"It wasn't as emotionally engaging as the others, but I understand why it was done," he says. "The problem is it becomes increasingly difficult to top the last ad, and we don't want to rely exclusively on the strength of our TV advertising."

But is that advertising ... erm ... a corporate wank? No, he insists. The quality of the products reflects the advertising, and vice versa.

Certainly, the market remains tough for all car manufacturers. An enfeebled economy caused a 5 per cent drop in all UK car sales last year. Nevertheless, Dodds declares himself pleased with Honda's April performance, which resulted in just under 8,200 registrations. This represents 5.2 per cent of the market and makes Honda the sixth-biggest-selling car brand.

Equally satisfying is what he believes is the changing perception of the brand long regarded as reliable but aesthetically unpleasing. One manifestation of this change is the fact that 25 per cent of the cars part-exchanged for the new Civic Diesel are premium marques - Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Volkswagen. "We've positioned Honda as 'alternative premium'," Dodds says.

Given his background in sales, it is no surprise he is eager to ensure Honda's communications make life easier for its dealer network. Dealers might be expected to be underwhelmed by ads that fail to show lots of gleaming product. Dodds, though, claims showroom people are generally supportive of the strategy because they have experienced the benefits of it.

"They have seen the increased footfall and the changing perception of Honda," he says. "They also know the communication isn't geared to how many cars you can sell next week, but to how you engage with your potential customers. It's all about being in partnership with our dealers. It's not about us managing them."

The implication seems to be that while TV ads will remain important, Dodds wants to see Honda's communication more evenly spread, with sales boosts not so heavily linked to TV campaigns.

"We have to look more seriously at our online activity," he declares.

"We have overhauled our website and made it more reflective of what we do in TV. But there is a lot more work to be done in carrying this through at dealer level and to our press advertising." Nor, he agrees, would a successful season by Honda's F1 team and its star drivers, Button and Rubens Barrichello, do the brand any harm.

In the longer term, how will Dodds and other auto marketers deal with criticisms that they promote global pollution? Honda's hopes lie with its Civic IMA model, a hybrid vehicle fuelled by electricity and petrol.

Dodds drives one, but acknowledges there is much consumer resistance to overcome.

The fact the Metropolitan Police has just ordered around 100 such cars will help, he predicts. But it's hard to convince people that hybrids do not need a battery the size of a wardrobe or that you don't have to keep plugging them in.

"Above all, they think they are just souped-up milk floats," Dodds observes.

Mind you, there was a time when everybody thought every Honda was like that. Not many do now.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 32
Family: Wife, Mary
Lives: Thursley, Surrey
Most treasured possession: Byron Nelson sand wedge
Drives: Honda Civic IMA
Favourite TV programme: The Apprentice
Describe yourself in three words: Challenging, driven, perceptive (so
says my PA, Dee Mavor)
Hobbies: Golf, playing the guitar, motorsport
Personal mantra: What would the customer think?

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