With a career spanning four decades, Stephen Norman has a wealth of car marketing experience, but he says it is society more than marketing that has changed in that time.
“Society has changed for the better. I see it in my children and the [younger] generation. All those changes mean we have to communicate in a much more equitable fashion,” he tells Marketing Week.
He looks back at the sexism of old car ads with unapologetic criticism – admitting marketers were “driving it up”.
“Some of them were overtly sexual to the point of being vulgar. Even in those days that was wrong. That didn’t sell cars.”
However, not everything has changed for the better. “There is still far more bad advertising than good advertising and there is still far more money given to media agencies without any clear idea of what the ROI might be.”
He adds: “One thing that still amazes me is how bad adverts get approved. Or how poorly designed cars get into production. It’s incredible how the process of decision-making sometimes takes over and the process drives the decision rather than the brilliance of what they’re trying to do.
“Things have to be brilliant, or have a flash of brilliance, to make you smile. It’s not a glum business selling or buying a car, it shouldn’t just be factual.”
Norman’s definition of a bad ad is very clear cut. “Bad advertising is when it makes no impact to the footfall of dealerships. Nobody advertises for the sake of it, you advertise to sell. We’re in this to make money.”
He also believes digital marketing has failed to deliver. “When digital came in the idea was it would be a money-saver, but in fact nobody has saved a penny.
“If anything, we have even less idea today of what works and what doesn’t than we did [pre-digital]. At least in those days we knew we didn’t know, now you think you know and you don’t – that’s the big difference.”
Despite the rise of digital Norman estimates that half of people still want to buy in-store. He explains: “There is still a significant body of people – and not just old people – who want the physical selection process in buying a car.”
When digital came in the idea was it would be a money-saver, but in fact nobody saved a penny.
Stephen Norman, Vauxhall
This often leads to a break in the customer journey. “For cars, unlike many other purchases, very few customers are only online. All go online but they go offline [as well] and you lose their trace. You may pick it up again or you may not.
“You can track the 1% to 2% of customers who do purchase online but what do you do for the other 80% to 90%? Do you extrapolate that? It’s one hell of an extrapolation”.
Norman’s solution has been to create a fully integrated service that he conceived while heading up Vauxhall owner Groupe PSA’s marketing, which will be launched in 2021. He doesn’t go into detail, but says it is designed to create the seamless customer journey that car manufacturers crave.
The importance of innovation
As continued migration into large cities continues and climate change concerns escalate, the car industry is desperately trying to innovate with electric and automated models. Norman concedes that it’s “chaos”.
He explains: “Carlos [Tavares, CEO of Groupe PSA] says the motor industry in Europe is going to be in chaos until 2030. I think the word chaos is a good word because chaos doesn’t mean bad necessarily, but it does mean a moving feast in permanence.”
But he can’t see diesel becoming obsolete just yet, with many factors needing to fall into place before it can become a reality. “When the electric car will enable you to go 200 miles; when the acceleration gives you the feeling that you’re in command of something interesting; when it looks right, then you’re going to have a package that people are going to say, ‘why would you not have one?’”