Wolfgang Schubert says it took him “less than one tenth of a second” to accept his new job as marketing communications director at Vauxhall Motors.
Even in an industry where claims of 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than the blink of an eye are commonplace, the decision was swift. That it was made by a man who generally works on five-year job cycles and has transported him from the sanitised glamour of Zurich to the more humble surroundings of Luton does not appear to concern the 41-year-old German.
“I’m always looking for new challenges and opportunities and, from a marketing perspective, the UK is at the top of Europe for General Motors,” says Schubert. “It is often the first to introduce new initiatives.”
Asking people at Vauxhall about Schubert draws little more than blank expressions. They know the name from his time in Zurich, but after six years at GM he is something of an enigma, in the UK at least.
You get the impression that is the way he prefers it. His personal and professional ambitions seem to have merged into wanting greater marketing responsibilities, experiencing other cultures and meeting fresh challenges.
But he has taken the job as Vauxhall reaches its most serious crossroads for several years. Having fought hard with market leader Ford for every percentage point in Europe’s most competitive car market, Vauxhall’s market share slipped back in 1994. The drop was accompanied by an 83m spend on promotional activity, largely as retail sales fell in the final half of the year, and a 44 per cent fall in profits.
This autumn’s launch of the replacement Cavalier, the Vectra, is crucial to the future success of the company – and to Schubert’s ambition of moving on to a bigger stage within GM. It should also mark a seismic change in the way Vauxhall advertises and markets its products, shifting from a rational value-for-money style to more emotional positioning.
Ironically, the Vectra name was developed in Germany with solid, rational values attached. “Germans love rationalism but have a bit of a problem with emotionalism,” concedes Schubert. But with Vauxhall’s advertising agency, Lowe Howard-Spink, he aims to imbue the Vauxhall brand with more emotion and passion. Campaigns for the Tigra and Omega have hinted at the shift but the Vectra will confirm the new emphasis.
“The Cavalier was, and is, Vauxhall today,” says Schubert, “with the help of the Cavalier, Vauxhall now stands for value for money and is associated with solid, rational values. Vauxhall is a powerful brand – but 15 years ago itwas not.
“It has reached plateau one. It now has to achieve plateau two by developing the more aspirational aspects of the Vectra and the Vauxhall brand into the next millennium.”
But he recognises that the task has to be achieved in a near suicidal market where manufacturers are throwing money into marketing schemes simply to maintain their share. While most manufacturers admit that the situation is out of control, no one wants to be the first to take their foot off the accelerator for fear of losing sales.
“It is a problem for the whole industry,” admits Schubert, giving a glimpse of the direction in which he will take Vauxhall.
“Manufacturers would do better to invest in the value of the brand, but no business allows you to stop developing the brand and forget about the day-to-day business of selling. Looking ahead, the difference will be that manufacturers will actually have to think about the future. We are developing in Asia – which will witness the race of the future – along with the US and European markets.
“I don’t think anything has gone wrong at Vauxhall. Last year’s spending was a reflection of the impact of the competition and over-reaction by the market leader.”
Schubert served his apprenticeship at Procter & Gamble and Volvo before arriving at the GM subsidiary, Opel Germany, in 1989. While at P&G, he launched Lenor Super Concentrate on an unsuspecting German public and also took the wrap for the failure of Dash Free (Bold Free in the UK), a detergent with fabric conditioner always destined for the product dustbin.
Schubert got a bout of wanderlust. “After five years at P&G you either stay forever and do the same thing again and again or you move on.”
He moved on. This time to become sales promotion and advertising manager at Volvo Germany. Another five-year cycle and it was over to Opel Germany, before a three-year stint in Zurich, where Schubert formed part of a team developing strategic, pan-European marketing ideas.
The team acted as a conduit for marketing information shared across the group.
But he yearned for more operational experience and jumped at the chance of moving to the UK to “move the metal”, as he puts it. Schubert appears very different to his predecessor Chris Lacey, who was moved to sales and marketing director at Opel Hungary Distribution last month.
You could imagine Lacey flogging a car on a dealer forecourt, but not Schubert.
He enjoys the absurdist humour in Lowe’s campaign for the Tigra but displayed little of it when we met after an early morning flight from Zurich. Adjectives that spring to mind in describing the new man include cool, calm, determined, reserved and steely.
For someone who has built his career in five-year bursts, Schubert claims not to have any future plans. His immediate concern is to build Vauxhall’s brand image and win added marketing responsibilities within GM.
He clearly has his eye on a move to Asia at some stage, but only once he has completed his mission at Vauxhall.
He denies his vision will involve the dropping of the Vauxhall name. GM has a growth plan to develop three worldwide brands – Chevrolet, Cadillac and Opel – but it seems it will continue to make an allowance for Vauxhall. It would be a mistake to drop the name, having invested so much in building it, he says.
But the vision will involve: strategic alliances with other blue-chip companies to share the escalating cost of promotions; a continuing relationship with Lowe Howard-Spink despite recent industry speculation that the two are not getting on; and a commitment to inject emotion – one of Schubert’s favourite words – into Vauxhall’s workmanlike image.
“The key success factor will be if in two years the brand image of Vauxhall has changed further. The sales and profits will follow,” predicts Schubert.
If that is the case, he will not regret his speedy decision.