OPINION: Cowen on ... Honda

For the past few years, Honda's attempts to find the key to the UK car market have resembled the Japanese football side struggling to unlock an opposition made up of Niall Quinn clones. We all know the potential is there, but despite the skills of the organisation and its stellar reputation in Asia, it lacks the stature to challenge the British market's established players. Honda has made steps in the right direction but it remains stuck on about 3 per cent share and its UK operation is struggling.

Honda, though, like the Japanese World Cup hosts, has clear intentions about overturning the status quo. Its debut campaign through Wieden & Kennedy is nothing if not ambitious. In fact, it attempts to leap over several stages in the standard evolution of automotive brands.

Heritage is the key to brand identity in the UK car market. It has taken years of successful models and consistent branding to establish the positions held by the likes of Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot. In contrast, Honda has lacked a breakthrough model to give it real momentum, and an inconsistent creative strategy, which saw the account split between CDP and The Leith in recent years, has hardly helped.

Dead cert for a Pencil? I wouldn't rule out "factory".
File under ... A for ambitious.
What would the chairman's wife say? So, is "whatif" a word?
W&K has attempted to overcome these shortfalls in a single bound. It seeks to create a heritage for Honda before our very eyes at the same time as it pushes the company's models with a confidence and lightness of branding that implies we should already know what this marque is all about. It's a delicately balanced conjuring trick of a campaign.

That it works at all is down largely to the power of the central "factory branding ad, which is one of the most original and powerful commercials to come out of a car manufacturer in years. It's visually striking and driven engagingly by the hypnotic voice of the US radio host Garrison Keillor - and it manages to remain charmingly quirky despite the potentially irritating claim that "What If is, in fact, a word.

However, the claim to be a radically innovative culture, passionate about pushing the boundaries of manufacturing, feels just a little empty in isolation. Honda's central brand message can only succeed in the context of the product ads - and the potential weakness in W&K's campaign is that these spots, in themselves, don't feel particularly groundbreaking. It's also asking a lot of Keillor's voice to link a set of animated ads for the Jazz with a film for the CR-V that could easily have been made for Volkswagen - and stamp both with the character of a brand that we're hardly familiar with in the first place.

Keillor is actually good enough to pull this off. However, he does so at a cost. Honda's narrator may sound unique but he also sounds laconic, even world-weary. This is perfectly suited to his US radio show, which trawls the backwaters of the American midwest for quirky folk tales, but it's less than ideal for a car manufacturer claiming to be wildly excited about its groundbreaking technology. There's a disconnect in tone between the perfume bottle print work, with its tale of a young Mr Honda's joy at seeing his first motor car, and Keillor's commentary on modern road habits, which treats the industry with knowing cynicism. Even the Orpington CR-V spot, which does have a real warmth to it, struggles to generate the thrill of the VW "heaven ad that it closely resembles.

That said, six months ago, you couldn't have made such minor criticisms about the Honda brand - because the Honda brand didn't exist in any real sense. That this has changed so dramatically says as much about this company's energy and enthusiasm as the ads themselves.


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