Getting it right with cars and expensive toys

  • Business
  • Saturday, 01 Mar 2003

THIS month, being notable for a three-day blast that is supposedly a high octane, ear-splitting event – the Sepang leg of the 2003 Formula 1 races – let’s stay on this theme and talk cars.  

Like those other high image products such as airline and cruise travel, luxury hotels and designer goods, motor vehicles and their advertising hold a special fascination for the general public while those of us who are lucky enough to write on a car account never entirely forget the experience.  

The Volkswagen “Think small” campaign of the ‘60s is oft quoted as the kind of breakthrough ads to be emulated together with David Ogilvy’s ad for the Roller that described its unearthly quiet inside disturbed only by the ticking of the electric clock.  

This is not to say that since then, there haven’t been outstanding work for one can point to the strong associations between Volvo and “safe car”; BMW and “ultimate driving experience”; or Mercedes Benz and superb engineering.  

All testify to a consistent, single-minded approach that has been carried through in their brand image campaigns with Merc’s recent “Fall in love” again series of ads for the new E Class quite eye-catching.  

But when you consider that there are more than 100 car makes around the world, yet only five or six brands have really occupied precious territory in the buying public’s psyche, you wonder why some of the car brands still can’t get it right.  

A cursory flip through magazines confirms this. After you get past the superb visual executions that tend to be the common denominator from the Range Rover to the Jaguar X type, you’re left less than breathless.  

The thing is, great looks tend to be a given – you should rightly be taken out and shot if you don’t exploit the sleek, glamorous lines of the automobile for all they are worth.  

After that? Hmmm, even the current crop of Lexus ads – while daring to be different visually – lacks the “wow” factor. The cute baby engineer fixing his pram, a streak of tail lights and close-up of a button to demonstrate the brand’s “relentless pursuit of perfection” try very hard, but they just don’t make the motorist fall in love.  

Peugeot’s world rally champion ad, on the other hand, is a clever copy and visual attestation to the various tortures the car underwent in the rally, so much so that one can forgive the visual messiness of multiple pictures. As an obligatory brag piece, you are nevertheless charmed by the touch of tongue-in-cheek.  

Another car marque with enviable appeal especially for those who enjoy expensive toys is Porsche, which reportedly sells only about 750 units in Asia compared to about 54,000 cars sold around the world.  

To boost its franchise, the 30 year-old handcrafted 911 model and the newer Boxster will soon be joined by the company’s first ever SUV, the Cayenne, so named because “it is spicy and adventurous ... and it is a name we can use anywhere in the world,” says Wendelin Wiedeking, the Porsche chief executive officer.  

While there are purists who scoff at the SUV for being “a great 4WD and a disappointing Porsche” and that “Porsche got its pedigree on race tracks, not goat tracks,” the fact remains that the year’s production of 25,000 vehicles has already sold out.  

Given the overwhelming demand, even if you have US$88,900 to fork out for the 450 horsepower turbo charged model, you may not be able to lay your hands on one anytime soon.  

For a brand of exclusive sports cars with a niche market, Porsche naturally does very little advertising. Marketing efforts focus on the personal touch with events, direct mail, Porsche owners’ club rallies and sometime this year in Asia, the roll out of Carrera Cup race in which identical 911 racing cars (no modifications allowed) battle it out on the track.  

As the last independent auto company, Porsche faces an interesting future. It obviously wants to grow beyond its fiscal 2002 US$5 billion revenue by broadening its sporty image and increasing sales, yet it cannot raise production of the existing models significantly, which would then compromise its exclusivity.  

How many car companies wouldn’t give their last dollar to have these “problems” that face Porsche!  

P.S. Don’t you think the Sepang F1 ads could be vastly improved from the current montage of images that does very little to capture the excitement of the event, despite the headline that screams it? Maybe the ad agency and the client should have a serious re-think.  

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