LIVE ISSUE/ROVER: Why has Rover borrowed Cool Britannia values? Hip or miss? Harriet Green canvasses industry views on the new Rover strategy

Last summer William Hague, the balding Tory leader who telescoped his childhood, youth and early middle age into the years before his 16th birthday, went in search of hip credentials. He found the Notting Hill Carnival, drank from a coconut, and posed for photos with urban groovers.

Last summer William Hague, the balding Tory leader who telescoped

his childhood, youth and early middle age into the years before his 16th

birthday, went in search of hip credentials. He found the Notting Hill

Carnival, drank from a coconut, and posed for photos with urban

groovers.



He wasn’t the only one. For a year, Tony Blair has courted every element

of youth culture, from fashion to film, in a bid to rebrand the whole

country.



And now, just as the backlash against the state-sponsored phenomenon of

’Cool Britannia’ gathers force - even grey John Major finds it

embarrassing - Rover has chosen to follow the example of Hague and

Blair. Scenes from the carnival appear in one of its new spots,

alongside everybody from hatmakers to architects.



Ammirati Puris Lintas has created two commercials - one for the Rover

200, one for the 400 (Campaign, last week). The films - all vivid colour

and up-to-the-minute ’ramping’ techniques - share a spoken endline,

’things haven’t changed a bit’, but that sentiment is turned on its head

by the images. For example, ’pearly queens’ mentioned in the voiceover

actually appear as hot chicks with pearls in their pierced navels and

’meals on wheels’ becomes a skateboarder who munches his burger

mid-stunt. Other telling details include Union Jack contact lenses for

the young, female star of the Rover 200 film and a mockney accent for

the voiceover. It’s swinging stuff.



The campaign marks a spectacular departure from everything Rover has

done for years. You remember the sort of thing: ’Englishman in New

York’, ’hostage’ and ’the big idea’, each one putting forward a

nostalgic ideal of pukka British manhood amid soft leather seats.



For many products, a ’cool’ strategy would be straightforward, but

nobody expected it from staid old Rover. Can Rover truly reinvent itself

as cool?



Or will the ads - impressive though they are - prove a flop? This could

go either way: it’s as though somebody’s father had wandered on to the

dance floor and begun to boogie. He might turn out a to be a hipster; he

might not. If the Notting Hill Carnival looks less appealing after

William Hague turned up, what might Rover’s endorsement do to it?



The man behind the new look is Chris Thomas. Now managing director at

APL, he joined last August from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO (where he ran

Volvo’s account) and is charged specifically with bringing new energy to

Rover advertising. At the time of his appointment, industry gossip

suggested the agency might not hold on to the Rover account much

longer.



’We had slipped a bit,’ Thomas concedes. ’We wanted to show that the

product had moved on. We have got to challenge peoples’ prejudices about

the brand.’



Focus groups set about analysing the brand, concluding that Rover was

’staid, dull and old fashioned’, according to the car-maker’s marketing

director, John Lowndes. And yet Rover had a surprisingly high number of

younger customers. The task for APL, then: ’To ’contemporise’ the

brand,’ says Lowndes, ’but bring along (Rover’s) existing owner base and

a future owner base.’



This shouldn’t have been difficult for Thomas. Look what he did with

Volvo. Safe and reliable, the vehicle of choice for affluent

middle-class families, Volvo couldn’t have been more boring. But months

of research by Abbott Mead led to the extraordinary Tony Kaye films such

as ’twister’.



Three years on, Volvo feels exciting.



Tim Delaney, Leagas Delaney’s creative director, believes Rover may be

trying too hard. ’If your strategy is to appeal to younger people then

you appeal to them. You don’t tell them.’ But Robert Campbell, creative

partner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, which launched its first work

for the mid-market Astra last month, believes Thomas’s new ads hit the

spot: ’Rover has identified its niche. It’s the only mass-market car

which can go on about being British and proud of it.’ Peter Souter,

Abbott Mead’s creative director, agrees that even on one viewing the

cars stand out: ’I knew it was Rover and British.’



Campbell doesn’t even think the link with youth culture especially

gratuitous: ’People could say we’ve hijacked youth culture by whacking

the Verve all over the Astra film - but that’s middle youth for you. The

brand manager for Astra is thirtysomething and looks like he should be

in Oasis.’



But what about the estrangement of Rover’s traditional heartland? ’I

don’t think Rover will worry about alienating older customers. It’s a

bit like readers of the Times or the Daily Telegraph: you’d probably

have to insult them publicly before they’d go away.’ (APL has toned down

the mockney on the Rover 400 film, and is likely to do the same when a

bigger car, dubbed the R40, launches next year.)



Thomas insists he isn’t frightened of the Cool Britannia backlash:

’Britain is on the move. We have the best art and culture and

engineering and design in the world, and we’re tapping into that.’



As Lowndes explains, Rover’s target market is not style leaders but more

down-to-earth folk: ’Rover’s not about leading edge in terms of arts.

Rover owners wouldn’t read a minority circulation publication.



But they might buy GQ.’



The day after the ads’ launch, the feeling from industry peers is

positive.



Souter believes the strategy will work if the cars deliver: ’Advertising

takes a lot of credit for changing Volvo’s image but the car had changed

as well. You don’t pierce a belly button if you haven’t got a nice

tummy.’



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