Close-Up: The Advocates - How the power of dreams is still driving Honda

In the fifth in Campaign's series The Advocates, championing clients who spend through recession, Honda's Ian Armstrong says why he is unlikely to use procurement people and wants his agency teams to have a frisson between them.

If there's one thing Ian Armstrong enjoys better than climbing into a car, it's getting under the bonnet of people's minds and understanding what makes them tick.

Honda's head of customer communications is meeting Campaign having just had lunch at the Royal Institution in London with its director, Baroness Susan Greenfield, the scientist, writer and broadcaster, whose specialty is the physiology of the brain.

Armstrong is pleased that he had the opportunity to pick Greenfield's brain. Working with scientists at Bristol University, Honda has been looking at how the form of brain-mapping known as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging - fMRI for short - can provide insights into what part emotions play in consumers' decision-making. This, he says, can manifest itself in all sorts of ways.

For Honda, which has successfully used its "power of dreams" initiative as the vehicle to move the brand forward from its old reliable, but dull, image to advertising that tugs the emotions, such learnings are growing in importance. Not least because of what's been happening to the UK car market.

Between the spring and summer of last year, the industry appeared to have driven over a cliff. It's rallied since. Dealers are starting to make money again, according to Armstrong, and Honda's Swindon factory has now reopened, having been shuttered for four months.

The impact of recession

But it's not just in Swindon where the impact of recession has been profound. Honda's UK marketing spend will be between £45 million and £50 million this year - half what the company spent in 2008.

"The market is down 32 per cent but we're up 28 per cent so we're ahead of target," Armstrong says. "None of our dealers are saying that people aren't coming through the doors. And we're doing less tactical advertising than we were this time last year." Indeed, it's a measure of some returning confidence that Honda recently put its "Impossible Dream" commercial on-air again.

Armstrong's team has a broad remit, covering everything from creative development, a burgeoning digital presence (including Honda TV on BT Vision), the relationship marketing programme, brochure output and a 150,000 circulation customer magazine published twice a year. Meanwhile, there's the promotional material that has to go to dealers.

For Armstrong, the challenge is how best to invest his budget in the face of changing priorities and consumer demands, as well as dealers who want to know they're being taken seriously and that their wishes are being acted on.

A green balancing act

It's a balancing act that needs constant attention. For example, are consumers as concerned about the environment as they seem or will the credit crunch mean more pragmatic considerations prevail?

Honda reckons it has a convincing green story to tell and environmental concerns did form a key element of the campaign for its Civic Hybrid model in the immediate aftermath of the multi-award- winning "cog" commercial.

Armstrong even wonders if the company has made its case too compelling. It currently can't shout too loudly about the Insight, the hybrid electronic vehicle launched into the UK in March, for fear of demand outstripping supply.

Then there's the question of the balance to be struck between what Honda does online and its presence on TV. The medium is a vital element of the marketing mix if dealers are to be kept onside.

"We had some residual investment from last year which we've been able to use on TV," Armstrong says. "Not just because it's cheap at present but because TV is a very efficient way of telling a story and it's right for our business."

What's more, he adds, TV breeds confidence among dealers. And when they're confident, they sell cars. "The best thing I can ever tell a dealer is that we're going on TV."

Honda is unusual among major advertisers in that it doesn't employ procurement specialists, relying instead on regular auditing. "We've a system in place that enables us to see how suppliers are performing for us," Armstrong says. "I've seen no evidence that we need to change it."

Commitment to agencies

That doesn't mean tight budgets haven't led to some pain-sharing between Honda and its agencies - Wieden & Kennedy, its lead UK creative shop, and Starcom, which handles media.

Armstrong clearly believes that, when it comes to agencies, Honda is in the driving seat. For one thing, the company values long-term relationships - and agencies know this. For another, it bestows prestige. "How much business have our agencies won on the back of work for Honda?" Armstrong asks.

There's also the added perk of the regular Honda away-days at which agency staffers can get adrenaline as well as the creative juices flowing by getting to drive the latest models at high speed on racetracks and off-road. "We really do have the best toys to play with," Armstrong laughs.

At the same time, the company's quest to get the biggest bang for its marketing buck continues apace. Honda TV is allowing it to communicate in a way it couldn't previously have done, Armstrong points out. And he'll clearly be looking for more PR-generating ideas like last year's live three-and-a-half-minute ad on Channel 4 when a team of skydivers spelt out the Honda brand name in a series of formations over Madrid.

"Media is a major component of what we do and we'll be ring-fencing some money to do more interesting things like this," he adds. "I need agency teams at the edge and with a level of frisson between them. I want clever people to butt up against each other." And to keep dreaming, no doubt.


Friendly persuasion

Vance Packard was Ian Armstrong's unlikely recruiting sergeant when it came to picking the career in which he has spent the bulk of his working life.

Unlikely because Packard's 1957 bestseller, The Hidden Persuaders, which claimed to blow the cover on ways in which the media and advertisers manipulated post-war Americans, ought to have been a turn-off for a would-be marketer.

But for Armstrong, Packard's book had a galvanising effect.

Taking the Pepsi Challenge

He dipped his toe in the water on placement at Procter & Gamble. Joining the graduate programme at Britvic - first in logistics and distribution and then in Andrew Marsden's marketing department - was his catalyst. He stayed eight years, working on Pepsi and Britvic, and managing its portfolio of adult brands, such as Purdy's.

Honda's pleasant surprise

Then a call from a headhunter heralded a change of direction. "I was asked if I was interested working on cars," he recalls. "The guy couldn't tell me who the company was but I was passionate about cars and was hoping it might be a great brand like Volvo. I was a bit disappointed when I heard it was Honda."

However, once inside, Armstrong found it nothing like its image. "It has an organisation and philosophy that are utterly compelling," he says fondly.