Vauxhall’s lukewarm drive for a cool image

Vauxhall hopes to shake its dull, fleet car image by launching a performance car sub-brand says John Stones.

While Boney M’s Daddy Cool may no longer be the music behind some of Vauxhall’s television ads, this most staple and humdrum of British brands is embarking on a radical programme to inject excitement without becoming the car equivalent of the ancient disco dancer.

At this month’s British Motor Show, Vauxhall will unveil its high-performance sub-brand VXR attached to versions of its VX220 Lotus-built sports car and the Australian-sourced Monaro sports coupé. These will be followed by VXR versions of its mainstream Astra, Tigra and Zafira models (MW last week).

This is part of a move by Vauxhall to stress its design and dynamic qualities. Recently appointed marketing director Andy Gilson (MW January 29) was previously the marketer on the development team for the extreme VX220 sports car, which last year beat Ferrari and Porsche to win Car Magazine’s influential “performance car of the year” title.

But outside Vauxhall, few people have anything positive to say about the brand and its strategy, except that it has a reputation for durability. Glass Guides editor Chris Smith quips: “A trader once said to me you can’t see a Vauxhall without imagining a bucket and a ladder on its roof.”

Mark Lund, chief executive of Vauxhall roster agency Delaney Lund Knox Warren, loyally responds: “Vauxhall may have a mountain to climb, but it is good to see it is striding resolutely up the foothills.”

Opinion remains divided about whether the VXR variants and extreme sports cars will work for Vauxhall, which has just launched its core Astra hatchback.

FutureBrand senior automotive consultant Gordon Gill notes that Vauxhall’s VXR sub-brand strategy is similar to that adopted by premium marques such as Mercedes, which has the AMG performance sub-brand.

He says the launch of high-performance products, such as the VX220 and Monaro models and their VXR equivalents, is a typical tactic adopted by the car industry to change brand perceptions of an entire portfolio. But sometimes the gulf between the models at the top of the range and those in the core range is too great. “People reject Vauxhall’s ‘permission’ to offer such cars. They smell a rat,” says Gill.

In Vauxhall’s defence, Gilson says brands sometimes have to do something extreme in order to shift perceptions a little bit.

However, Professor Garel Rhys, of the Institute of Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff Business School believes the tactic will work, particularly now Vauxhall has improved the quality of its mainstream cars. “Look at Skoda,” he says. “The excellence of a particular model can impact on the brand.”

“It takes a while to get on to the dance card.” says Matthew Bull, London chief executive of Vauxhall roster advertising agency Lowe. “Brands are like families – they may dress differently, but they have the same core values.”

Underlying the brand strategy is Vauxhall’s perception that it has to work hard to attract private buyers, rather than company car owners. Lex Vehicle Leasing residual value analyst Jim McNally says, even when it comes to company cars, few so-called “user-choosers” will go for a Vauxhall. “If they can choose something else, they will.”

Last year, General Motors-owned Vauxhall sold 326,433 cars in the UK, taking 12.7 per cent of the market – second only to Ford. Of those, only 35 per cent were retail sales to private buyers, with the remaining 65 per cent being fleet sales.

As EU law deregulates car retailing (MW June 5, 2003), Vauxhall and Ford have the most to fear. An insider from a rival says these brands have been allowed to become dull and grey. But he also questions whether the sporting halo is yesterday’s approach. He notes with admiration the way Honda and Toyota have linked their brands to the future with their petrol/electric hybrid technology.

Many wonder whether General Motors will rebrand Vauxhall as Opel, the marque used in the rest of Europe, but the company repeatedly denies this. General Motors, however, is adopting an approach that is unconventional to Europe. It is consolidating the marketing of its brands, which also include Saab and Daewoo.

For instance, Vauxhall is now implementing the marketing for sister marque Saab in the UK, and both brands will appoint the same direct marketing agency shortly. General Motors is also debating whether to add the GM prefix to the Vauxhall and Saab brands. In another consolidation move, Daewoo will be rebranded as Chevrolet, General Motors’ value marque in the US, later this year. (MW March 18)

For the time being, the Vauxhall brand seems safe. However, the need for pan-European efficiencies at a global giant such as General Motors may lead to a different decision in the future, unless the efforts to transform Vauxhall into an exciting and desirable brand are successful.

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