Never was the impoverished and parlous state of what once passed
for the British motor industry more grimly summed up than in the Evening
Standard headline on the newsstands outside London’s Savoy hotel last
week: ’Rover is sold for a tenner.’
The tale of how this once proud company was gobbled up and spat out by
BMW when it proved too indigestible must have seemed poignantly ironic
to the agency executives and marketers as they hailed their cabs.
Over coffee at an International Advertising Association lunch, they had
just drawn a picture of life at the other end of the automotive
spectrum. And it could hardly have been more different.
Morton Hannesbo, a senior marketing executive at Ford of Europe, was
talking telephone number ad budgets and up to dollars 8 million spent
during just two weeks of the Frankfurt Motor Show. Of Rover there was no
That’s not to say Ford’s record in Europe has been an unparalleled
success. Far from it. The company’s dollars 23.3 billion in corporate
profits over the past four years has been fuelled almost entirely from
the homogeneous US market.
Europe’s divergent cultures, famous local names such as Renault, Fiat
and Skoda and the Continent’s varied car-buying habits dissipate Ford’s
advertising initiatives. There’s also the constant problem, particularly
in the UK, of balancing brand-building against the demands of dealers
who simply want to shift metal.
In short, selling cars across Europe requires a deft touch and deep
But while Ford can afford the luxury of a few errors, the same can’t be
said of Rover, where Phoenix faces a terrible marketing Catch-22. To
fund the huge investment needed to develop new models, it has to cut its
adspend. But if it does that, dealers will grow disenchanted and the
advertising juggernauts of Ford and General Motors will roll over
So the English Patient is a terminal case, is it? Well, don’t write the
obituary just yet. The British tendency to back underdogs shouldn’t be
underestimated and Phoenix needs to milk all the support Rover can get,
particularly from its Midlands heartland.
Rover’s best hope now is to acknowledge the folly of trying to be a
mass-market producer and to stop pretending to be what it isn’t and
never will be.
BMW’s big mistake was to debase the Rover brand by trying to turn it
into a mirror image of itself - young, racy and sexy. M&C Saatchi’s TV
campaign featuring a hip young model merely perpetuates the myth.
If Rover can rediscover its true personality, it will find that there is
a market out there: it doesn’t have pierced navels or wear miniskirts up
to its armpits. It goes on winter cruises, has a high disposable income
and buys quality cars. It is - horror of horrors - the middle classes
But then aren’t we all middle class now?