Vauxhall is not the company it once was. A former flagship of the UK car industry, the company’s market share has slipped by more than four per cent over the past ten years, from 16.7 per cent to 12.6 per cent.
In an effort to reverse this decline, and in an effort to cling on to its position as the second-largest car seller after Ford, the General Motors-owned car company is hunting for a second agency to work alongside incumbent Lowe, and generate some new advertising ideas.
Vauxhall is battling with an increasingly polarised car market – consumer choice is split between cheaper, low-status bargain brands such as Daewoo and the badges of aspirational luxury models such as BMW. Vauxhall, like Ford, sits in the middle of a shrinking volume sector.
Vauxhall’s critics claim the marque is in much need of an image overhaul. Its products, they say, lack design to differentiate them from other mass-market marques, and the brand is synonymous with company reps’ cars.
“Vauxhall saw potential in the fleet market 20 years ago and invested heavily in it,” says a marketing director from a rival company. “But the problem now is that the Vauxhall brand is inextricably linked with reps and their Vectras and Cavaliers (the Vectra’s predecessor). If you see a Vectra on the motorway, you can almost guarantee there will be a suit jacket hanging in the window.”
A new repertoire
Last week, Vauxhall’s ultimate “rep car”, the Vectra – its midsize or so-called CD segment model – was for the last time rolled off the production line at Luton, ending nearly 100 years of car production at the plant.
But Vectra’s departure from Luton does not signal the end for the brand in the UK. Vauxhall is relaunching the Vectra in June at its Ellesmere Port plant; it will be built alongside the Astra.
Vauxhall sales and marketing director Dean Barrett takes exception to claims that the Vectra is just a reps’ car and adds: “I don’t think ‘reps’ want to be known as reps. These individuals know what they are and are particular about what they drive.”
He is also defensive about Vauxhall’s lack of imaginative design in recent years. “Not only do we have the VX220 (a Lotus-built sports car), we have just announced turbo versions of Astra convertibles to attract drivers who want a more sporty look,” he says. “And we already do turbo versions of the Astra coupé and Zafira.”
But turbo versions of existing line-ups is innovation on a mild scale, and the efforts of Vauxhall pale in comparison to those of rivals Renault, Peugeot and CitroÃÂ«n, which have models in almost all of Vauxhall’s car segments. Each of these has worked hard over the past ten years to create individual brands that stand out in an increasingly crowded market.
Keith Lucas, consulting director at Landor Associates, which works for Ford, says: “Renault, CitroÃÂ«and Peugeot are about panache and sex appeal. Volkswagen stands for mainstream dependability, but with a Teutonic edge; and Fiat has Italian flair. But what is Vauxhall about? Having said that, Vauxhall must sort out the product first. There’s no point coming up with a design that is not very exciting and then putting fantastic spin on it.”
The search for a second agency is well under way and Barrett says he has a selection of both large and small agencies on his shortlist. Whichever agency is successful, it will have to create an effective, memorable and consistent brand advertising campaign – something Vauxhall’s incumbent has failed to crack for a few years.
It all seemed to go wrong for Lowe when it introduced Griff Rhys-Jones as the face of Vauxhall’s advertising campaigns. The ads, which were initially for Vauxhall’s Zafira, aimed to show that the product defied logic. After an initial warm response, public and industry impressions reversed when Rhys-Jones’ eccentric professor persona was stretched across all Vauxhall advertising and the ads became labelled as “irritating”.
Barrett is defensive of the campaign, saying: “The ads were introduced for the Zafira and were well received. We know people didn’t like the ads for the VX220, but we have the statistics to show they were effective.”
Barrett is not keen to talk about what Vauxhall wants from a new agency, saying it is not in his interests to reveal Vauxhall’s plans to market itself.
One source from an agency that is pitching for the business says: “There is a lot of goodwill for Vauxhall, and it features as one of the Reader’s Digest most trusted brands – a lot of people have grown up with it. But it does need revitalising and its advertising, which is category generic, needs to have a personality. The brand has been around for a long time, it has earned a lot of trust, but the advertising needs to communicate this.”
Astra la vista
One comfort Lowe may draw from Barrett’s quest for a second agency is that it may only be a temporary expedient. Four years ago GM shocked the European advertising industry by handing the campaign for its revamped Astra to Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe. A year later the work went back to Lowe – after 12 months of rumoured problems on the Astra business, the account was finally taken from Rainey Kelly after it was bought by Ford ad agency Young & Rubicam.
Vauxhall is not the only GM brand to have a lethargic image. Landor Associates’ Lucas says: “GM has a general problem. Its brands are pretty dreary, even the Chevrolet in the US is dull. The company has got a strange approach to running brands – none of them seems to be well defined. There is more equity in the Opel brand in Germany. Vauxhall is quite a warm, cuddly brand, and it is British, but what is that worth? Most people won’t buy a car because it is British.”
Part of the problem for GM is that it lacks a global brand to enable it to play on the international scene. For instance, Vauxhall or its parent company could not back Formula One as Ford does. Vauxhall has to make do with the slightly less glamorous British Touring Car Championships.
Vauxhall cars are designed in Germany and are branded under GM’s European name Opel throughout Europe, excluding the UK. Many companies outside the car industry are rebranding their products as one Europe-wide name, with surprisingly little fuss or confusion. These include Unilever’s cleaning product Jif, which was renamed Cif; and Oil of Ulay, rebranded Oil of Olay.
Branding companies predict that many more brands will take the same course of action and several claim to be undertaking research on behalf of international companies keen to cut costs by having the one brand, but concerned about consumers’ perceptions.
Some industry insiders believe that the Vauxhall marque – which celebrates its 100th birthday next year – would benefit from being rebranded Opel.
“The name Opel is German, it’s where the cars are designed and British drivers like to drive German cars,” says the marketing director of a German car company.
An advertising agency source who previously worked on the business at Lowe says: “Rebranding is something that is never talked about at Vauxhall, but I am surprised it isn’t. The Opel brand would be a lot easier to work with.”
Barrett vehemently denies there is any chance of a rebrand: “Corporately it does not have attractions, and there are no intentions. It wouldn’t make any sense for us to become Opel. Not only does the Opel brand mean nothing in the UK but the cars are not the same. Because British drivers demand different things, Vauxhall’s specifications are different to Opel’s.”
His claims are backed by automotive analyst Professor Garel Rhys, professor of motor industry economics at Cardiff Business School: “There may be one or two people at GM who would like to do it [ditch the Vauxhall name] but GM tends to keep brands, for example its Holden brand in Australia. While the Vauxhall name is useful [to GM] there would be no reason to rebrand it as Opel.”
Rhys believes that GM would only consider ditching Vauxhall for Opel if the brand became fatally flawed, which so far has not occurred.
It is known that GM looked at the possibility of rebranding Vauxhall as Opel a few years ago but abandoned all such thoughts when the balance sheet showed how costly an exercise it would be. Also, Vauxhall has over 12 per cent of the UK market. In Germany, Opel has only ten per cent.
Some design experts are also critical of Vauxhall’s badge, the griffin. They claim it is old fashioned compared with Opel’s dramatic “streak of lightening” badge. But Rhys says: “I don’t think a badge matters. There is nothing wrong with it, Peugeot has something similar and no one criticises that.”
Not for the scrap heap yet
Nobody believes it is too late for Vauxhall, but the pressure is mounting for the company and GM to decide how they want to position themselves and their cars. Vauxhall’s search for a second agency suggests that it is willing to look at ways to dissociate itself from its image as the maker of dreary, forgettable cars – an image that is unfortunately reinforced by its current advertising campaign, which carries the strapline: “Handles life beautifully”.