OPINION: Mills on ... Skoda

Imagine you went into Fortnum and Mason and found that the grocer by appointment to foodies, snobs and residents of Mayfair was selling Kwik Save own-label baked beans. It would be a bit of a shock. Either the world had turned upside down, you'd conclude, or Kwik Save was now the brand du jour.

That's pretty much how I felt when I heard that HR Owen, the car dealership best known for selling Rolls-Royces and Bentleys to Arabs, film stars and admen who made their fortunes in the 80s, was now selling Skodas.

I know Skoda has come a long way in the past three years, but that far?

But then again, why not? If it's not exactly the brand du jour in motoring terms, thanks to some serious re-engineering of its cars under the benign ownership of Volkswagen and inspired marketing and advertising, Skoda is certainly hot. Since 1999, when the marque was relaunched, sales have increased by more than 50 per cent to 36,000 cars a year, and market share has risen by a third.

Four years on, Skoda has clearly decided to capitalise on this remarkable about-turn in its fortunes to take a big step upmarket with the launch of its latest model, the grandly named Skoda Superb (Class! Cut the sniggering).

Now some might think the idea of Skoda calling one of its cars the Superb was, if not a contradiction in terms, an invitation to derision. I suspect that Fallon, whose advertising has done so much to remove the stigma from the marque, would not have recommended this name. But apparently it has history: back in the 30s Skoda had a luxury model called the Superb and the Czechs back at head office in Mlada Boleslav obviously feel the hand of destiny. So the Superb it is and, judging by the reviews in the motoring press, the name - if not 100 per cent accurate - is not as misplaced as it might be.

Make no mistake, however, the Superb represents a big leap into the unknown for Skoda, seeking as it does to put the marque into the bottom end of the executive class. With a top price of £24,500, the Superb is more expensive than a top-of-the-range Renault Laguna or Citroen C5 or a bottom-of-the-range Audi A6 or BMW 5 series car. Some might say that was ambitious, some might say it was mad, but as Cilla might say: "You get a lorra, lorra car for your money."

But if the car represents a step-change for Skoda, the advertising is most definitely in the tried-and-tested Skoda style. A new employee's first job is to attach Skoda badges to cars rolling down the production line. After a few Fabias, he gets the hang of it. But when the Superbs appear he stops, convinced they can't possibly be Skodas. The alarm sounds and the line is reversed. The endline appears: "It's a Skoda too. Honest." It's classic Fallon, classic Skoda: beautifully shot and acted, charming and it makes its point.

And yet. Much as I admire Fallon's work for Skoda I can't help wondering how much longer it can continue with that gently mocking, self-effacing style of advertising. The formula may not be tired yet, and so long as Skoda has an image problem it's fine. But it's getting to the point where the joke brand status is almost completely gone. Besides, if Skoda doesn't take itself seriously, why - especially if I'm going to spend upwards of £15,000 on one of their cars - should I? Second, other than in the name, the ad fails to suggest that there is anything special about this car. Surely a shift upmarket demands a different type of advertising, or at least some factual underpinning. But perhaps I carp. Other car brands should have those problems.

Dead cert for a pencil? It's a jury-pleaser

File under ... C for consistent

What would the chairman's wife say? "Does that mean I have to trade the Merc in?"


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