Emergency measures

Back in 1992, the Automobile Association was facing long-term, serious decline in private member sales and retention rates, and for the first time the total number of members had started to fall.

The recession of the early Nineties was taking its toll and the AA faced an increase in competition – from the RAC’s “New Knights of the Road” and from a new set of low-cost operators, led by National Breakdown, which were increasingly seen to offer just as good a service but more cheaply.

The AA was the market leader: it dominated the sector in terms of the scale of its operation and was dedicated to providing a degree of service which if felt warranted a price premium. It was not prepared to reduce the “spec” of its services just to match the prices of the low-cost operators.

The challenge was to get consumers to view the AA’s service in a new light: to move them into a different class from the competition. The long-running “very nice man” campaign was well regarded by the public, but it was doing nothing to encourage people to reassess the organisation.

The clue for the 4th Emergency Service positioning came from HHCL & Partners’ research within the AA. Most people view breaking down as highly distressing and potentially dangerous. AA patrols saw themselves as rescuing members from emergencies – rather than just fixing cars.

The 4th Emergency Service campaign broke in July 1993 with a TV commercial and posters. The voiceover for TV ad juxtaposes facts about the scale of the AA’s operation, such as: “The AA is the biggest breakdown patrol service in Britain” and “We deal with 13,000 calls for help a day”, with the questions: “So why aren’t we number one, two or three?”

The questions are posed over dramatic footage of the other three emergency services at work, followed with the endline: “The answer of course is that we’re proud to be number four.”

The advertising was instantly well received within the AA. The patrols were delighted to be members of an emergency service rather than “very nice men”. Van livery, membership cards and literature were all redesigned to reflect the positioning.

The ads had a dramatic effect. The Omnicar tracking survey showed spontaneous advertising awareness leapt from 28 per cent to 58 per cent. People found the message credible.

After the first burst of advertising in 1993, 60 per cent of members agreed that the AA is the 4th Emergency Service. Now, 97 per cent of people who claim to have seen the advertising agree that the AA is the 4th Emergency Service.

The tracking results were more than reflected in a sales uplift. New member sales rose from 430,000 in 1992 to 530,000 in 1995 and retention increased from 85 per cent to 87 per cent. The AA’s total member holdings rose from 7.5 million in 1992 to its current all-time high of 9.3 million.

Following the launch of the campaign, sustained growth has been achieved by refreshing the advertising messages. In 1994, “You’re the member, not the car” was introduced. Since then the focus has been on patrol training and excellence.

The latest campaign, launched on March 2, links the AA even more strongly with the other emergency services by showing the police, ambulance and fire brigade in action.v

Company: Automobile Association

Group marketing director: Bob Sinclair

Manager marketing communications: Cathy Billett

Agency: HHCL & Partners

Account director: Alison Wright

Planner: Brent Gosling

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