PERSPECTIVE: Will Rover learn that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

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.’

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

mention.



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

pockets.



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

it.



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?



john.tylee@haynet.com.



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