Into Battle

Every general election is going to be the dirtiest ever, every advertising campaign the most radical and every car launch is always the biggest and most important.

But as the “all-new” Vauxhall Astra goes on sale in the UK this Friday there could be more than hyperbole behind the claim that it is the most significant launch for the General Motors-owned car company in 20 years.

In the past 18 years the company has sold more than 1.5 million Astras in the UK and it expects the new version to sell more than 100,000 in its first 12 months. It could have gone down the same route as its main rival Ford – which is renaming the Escort the Focus – and repositioned it, but it has remained loyal to a name which was almost hijacked by an Eighties satellite company.

“This is the biggest single car development at General Motors,” says Vauxhall marketing operations director Andrew Jones. “It is built to be sold worldwide and we have invested 300m at Halewood (the Merseyside plant where the car is being built) alone. GM has a great deal riding on it.

“It is one of the core brands in the UK and there is a lot more at stake than with previous launches. The economics, technology and design advances are allowing us to make the car affordable for a substantial number of people in the UK. In some respects Astra is Vauxhall.”

If that is the case then Vauxhall, and especially the Astra, is about to trigger the most aggressive bout of car marketing the UK has ever seen. A revamped Volkswagen Golf will arrive at dealers next month before going on sale in May. While the Focus will hit showrooms in time to go on sale in October.

It too is seen as a crucial launch, for Ford. The Escort has been a big seller and in many ways Ford is taking a bigger risk by launching a replacement, radically different in design, that does not even carry the same name and therefore the same associations.

All three cars compete in the C-class sector, will be priced at a similar level – the basic Astra will sell for 11,000 – have similar features and seek to sell, at least in the case of Astra and Focus, more than 100,000 cars each in their first 12 months in the UK. VW has a more conservative sales target of between 40,000 and 45,000 for the Golf. But between them the three models will account for more than 15 per cent of the total UK market.

It is an unprecedented level of activity among the big volume players in what is the most popular car class in Europe. In the UK the three cars will soak up an estimated 35m of the manufacturers’ total 140m UK advertising budgets between now and the end of the year.

But that is not the end of the competition. Other manufacturers such as BMW, Mercedes and, in the near future, Jaguar are all trading down to take the higher priced end of the C-class market. Fiat and Renault are also a constant presence in what is becoming a very crowded sector.

The economics for the manufacturers is bad news. They are having to put more and more into the cars without being able to charge more for them. “There is no room for error and very little room for price increases,” says a Ford spokesman. “Manufacturers will have to offer better value, customer service while also absorbing the extra cost of developing ever more sophisticated cars.

“The pressure is coming from all quarters and so all the traditional C-class manufacturers are having to be more innovative in the products they are producing.”

The launch of the revamped Volkswagen Golf, Europe’s second best selling car, has been delayed by supply problems. Head of UK marketing John Abbott admits that although the car will go on sale in May there will be under-supply until at least October. It also faces the prospect, because it is not a complete overhaul, of being overlooked by motoring journalists and consumers in favour of the “all new” Astra and Focus.

“This amount of activity is a reflection of how competitive the market is. And if you are left behind then you could become the odd one out for a year or two – Ford will be on the back foot for a while but it is already taking action to publicise the Focus and it will do everything possible to upset launches from the other manufacturers, especially the Astra,” says Abbott.

Ford denies that the October timing of its launch is a disadvantage. But anything that gives a rival an edge, either in terms of timing or marketing, can damage sales. “Focus is all-new, bringing new benefits and offering more features for its class,” says a spokesman. “We are not worried about entering the market later because we believe we will have a class-leading vehicle.”

This is exactly what Vauxhall also claims. And it is first into the market with its pan-European Astra TV campaign, created by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, which launches on Thursday. It adapts the language of Blair’s Britain in its “Quality is a right. Not a Privilege” strapline. The word “quality” is substituted for durability, safety, comfort and others in future executions.

In the ad, helicopters carry over-priced bulky “luxury” cars which fly over the heads of the masses – they can’t afford them – but the Astra is on hand and is accessible. The bulky cars, described as luxury cars out of the reach of ordinary people, are actually GM-owned Chevrolet Caprices which may not have gone down too well in GM’s Detroit headquarters. Images of Astra drivers and passengers are reflected in the gleaming bodywork.

This is all to the soundtrack of a new arrangement of the Rolling Stones’ The Last Time – which sounds remarkably similar to last year’s reworking of the same tune by the top selling band, The Verve, as Bitter Sweet Symphony.

The style of the advertising has, deliberately, more in common with BMW and Mercedes campaigns, than previous ads for the likes of C-class Astra and Escort. This advertising is a million miles from the JD and Atkins characters which were used for most of the Astra’s first 18 years.

And while the ad suffers from over-production and the metaphor of inaccessibility is laboured, it does communicate the message that the all new Astra is available to everybody – if you have 11,000 or more. It also makes the car look like the more expensive Audi A3.

Rainey Kelly won the pan-European account, estimated to be worth between 35m and 50m, last November after General Motors went outside its roster agencies, the Interpublic Group-owned Lowe Group and McCann-Erickson.

As much as 15m has been set aside for media spend in the UK alone for the rest of the year. The ad will run across more than 20 countries. Jones says it is “the first time GM has come so close to a pan-European campaign” – the only major market that has not taken it is Germany where a Lowe & Partners film will be shown.

“The new Astra is the first out there,” says Rainey Kelly managing partner Jim Kelly, “Vauxhall is aiming to be the category owner and hit the high ground. I am relieved that we are the first out.

“It would be criminal not to point up the virtues of this car. We are telling people something about a car which they believe they know. It needed a break from the previous style of advertising.”

These “virtues” include a galvanised body, the involvement of a team of Lotus designers and a variety of safety and environmental initiatives that have not previously been standard in C-class cars. But the Astra’s edge will last only until the revamped Golf, or more probably the Focus, is launched amid similar claims and with a similar budget.

Therefore Vauxhall will try to pinch Escort owners while they are making up their mind about buying a Focus. The other key targets will be the estimated 1 million Astra owners in the UK – more than 450,000 have been contacted about the “all-new” car through a direct marketing campaign devised by GGT Direct.

The subplot to all of this activity is the role of Rainey Kelly. With this campaign the agency enters a much bigger league. Its appointment was controversial – especially among the IPG agencies and it began shooting the second stage of its Astra work, which will be aired in the autumn, this week.

IPG has responded to the failure of its agencies to pick up the business by creating a separate Europe-wide unit, the General Motors Brand Communications Group, bringing Alfredo Marcantonio from Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO to give creative impetus (MW March 19). The group will liaise with the two roster agencies which handle all other GM work in Europe.

“When we saw the work from the roster agencies we felt that we could do better,” says Jones commenting on General Motors reaction to the Astra work they were shown last August. “A small number of us (including GM Europe’s director of advertising Patrick Dunster) saw pitches from a small number of agencies across Europe. Out of that there was, unusually, a clear winner. The Rainey Kelly idea had a clarity of thinking and a simple idea.”

Jones hints that there could be other GM work which will go out to pitch with non-roster agencies. The creation of the IPG unit suggests that it wants to be better prepared next time.

The C-class has never been so competitive. The Astra is the first into the market and with this launch Vauxhall is effectively declaring war on its rivals.

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