Safety first – except when selling a car

In a car market where there is virtual parity, can Renault find a way of making its new Laguna stand out from all of the rest? asks David Benady

Last week, just 24 hours after its new Laguna model was awarded top marks in safety tests by the New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP), Renault commissioned a series of press ads proclaiming the news and re-dubbed its TV ads to deliver the same message.

While Renault’s rivals in the motor trade may be envious that the Laguna is the first car to earn five stars in the NCAP tests, many believe the news will leave car buyers cold.

After all, the New Car Buyers Survey, which asks people across Europe why they have bought certain models, shows that safety is usually seventh or eighth in a car buyer’s list of concerns, behind factors such as price and style.

Toyota commercial director Mike Moran says: “Full marks to Renault, but in the vast sweep of things, I don’t think the average car buyer would care. People are far more interested in the product and how it fits with their lifestyle.”

But he adds that a concerted ad campaign can help brands dominate certain areas of brand identity – Volvo plugged its safety message for years, and is now the car most associated with this asset in consumers’ minds.

Volkswagen owns reliability as part of its brand identity, after ramming home the message in brand campaigns until 1994. Since then, it has used this part of its identity in ads for individual models.

At a cost of several hundred million pounds, advertising can no doubt reinforce brand identity. But it is a two-edged sword and can easily mislead consumers into false notions of a brand. For instance, in the JD Power/Top Gear test last year, the VW Polo came 80th in terms of customer satisfaction. Nor, somewhat surprisingly in view of its safety platform in the past, is Volvo the best performer in safety tests.

Volvo has since moved away from a safety based message, dropping the “caged for safety” tag, which many felt had become boring and said little about the car’s personality. A press officer now boasts of tests showing that Volvos can travel at 135mph continuously for 24 hours.

Richard Butterworth, account planner at BMP DDB on the Volkswagen account, says VW considered running a campaign based on safety for its Polo marque, but decided against it, saying “in dramatising it [safety], it reminds people that driving can be dangerous.”

Many observers say that safety can no longer form the basis of car advertising because people believe that all cars are reliable and safe.

Previous results of NCAP safety tests have had little effect on long-term sales of marques, according to brand owners. Chrysler, whose Voyager marque was awarded only two stars in tests on people carriers in 1999, says there was only a marginal downturn in sales, but the model has sold 9 million since its launch.

Steve Greenstead, account director for Citroën at Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, says car makers were jolted into taking action on safety in the Seventies, after Ford was forced to recall the so-called “exploding” Pinto following a campaign backed by consumer campaigner Ralph Nader. “Safety is the entry level into the market, a car has got to pass the tests,” he says.

Young mothers with children are most interested in safety, he says, adding that between 15 per cent and 20 per cent of car buyers will respond to safety messages in advertising.

Many in the industry claim Renault’s campaign last week was “opportunistic”. David Hall, planner at Fallon, which creates ads for Skoda, says that safety has become a “hygiene” factor and that people expect it anyway: “If you look at a brand like Renault, it is a huge advertiser in the car market, but it rarely has anything to say. Cars are becoming more similar, there’s far more product parity.”

Strong performance in NCAP or What Car? tests are jumped upon in advertising to demonstrate differentiation. Fiat ran a campaign for its Punto marque after it won a What Car? safety award based on NCAP tests, and still refers to these in its ads.

While safety may not be the central theme for advertising, promoting a model’s speed is now all but banned. The Advertising Standards Authority’s British Codes of Advertising and Sales Promotion state that advertisers should not make speed or acceleration claims the predominant message in ads. The last straw was an ad for the Vauxhall Vectra SRi, which showed aerial photographs of three country roads with severe bends and a photograph of a Vauxhall SRi racing car. The text, comprising four curving lines of typescript, stated “Motorsport just got an extra 240,000 miles of track.”

The Independent Television Commission’s Code of Advertising Standards and Practice also stipulates that speed is not an acceptable platform for automotive advertising, and ads must not refer to top speed capabilities in excess of UK speed limits, nor suggest or imply that speed limits may be exceeded.

Renault is in the position of having for once something specific to boast about in its advertising, even though it may not motivate people to buy its cars. But for advertisers, anything is better than pumping out similar campaigns year after year, and tactical advertising of test results can add colour to otherwise tedious campaigns.

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