Can Proton do a Kejian in Britain?

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 11 May 2003

Will the three-year sponsorship deal with Norwich City Football Club help Proton carve up a bigger slice of the British automobile market? TAN KAH PENG reports from London

WHEN Everton Football Club announced its new sponsor late last year, it raised a lot of eyebrows. Kejian? A strange sounding name indeed, made more complicated by its logo in Chinese characters on the famous blue jerseys so loved by the Goodison Park fans who are proud of the club’s 125-year history. 

The Shenzhen-based mobile phone operator may not be a household name in Britain, but its £2mil (RM12.2mil) sponsorship deal, which is due to be extended by two more years, has paid off handsomely. 

“We have many fans in China because Lie Tie is playing for Everton,” Mei Zhang, who is in charge of the club’s Chinese website, told The Star. “He is a very popular national player.” 

Tengku Mahaleel:'I am confident the deal will give Proton cars the necessary boost in awareness.'

Not surprisingly, Lie Tie’s exploits both on and off the field are keenly followed in China, judging by the 500,000 hits a day on the Chinese website, some 500 e-mails a week and more than 50 letters a month that Mei Zhang receives. 

For Kejian, the sponsorship of Everton – under which the club will take in two national players – is a marketing strategy that has reaped huge dividends as it has consolidated its position as China’s third-largest mobile operator. 

While first division Norwich City Football Club may not have the same status as Everton, its new sponsor, Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional Bhd, would hope to enjoy the same success as Kejian, but in Britain. 

Proton CEO Tengku Tan Sri Mahaleel Ariff is confident that the three-year sponsorship deal will give Proton cars the necessary boost in awareness in the highly-competitive market despite being in Britain since 1989. 

It is expensive to compete with the likes of Ford, Volkswagen, Renault, Toyota, Honda and in recent years Hyundai and Kia Motors for time slots on television and space in the mass media. 

Tengku Mahaleel would certainly hope that sales figures, currently about 3,000 units a year, would match, if not better, the average 10,000-mark in the early 1990s, reaching a peak of 14,000 cars in 1992. 

It helped when Lada, the Soviet car, was being phased out then and its dealers found a good replacement in Proton, but like any success story it attracted a lot of attention from rivals, who wanted a share of the low-cost market. 

By the mid-1990s, companies such as Hyundai, Kia Motors and even Ford and other European manufacturers had edged out Proton cars that, according to leading motoring writer Ray Hutton, have not quite shed its low-end image. 

Over the last five years the lack of a new range of cars has not helped matters, but the success of the Impian, which has been described by Hutton as “a good new start,” may help change Proton’s image to a quality marque. 

Proton has always ranked among the top 10 makes in the annual UK Customer Satisfaction Study, and this year it came second behind Jaguar in a survey by Which Car? magazine. 

The Lotus imprint is important, according to a former Proton dealer who declined to be named, because the market nowadays is governed more by the quality of a product rather than value for money. 

“Lotus is synonymous with engineering excellence and its involvement in Proton cars will definitely be beneficial,” he said, adding that he had heard of its new family of Campro engines developed in conjunction with Lotus Engineering. 

He has not ruled out selling Proton cars again, hinting that a lot would depend on the performance and price of the new models, and especially important for him would be the ability to introduce quality new makes on a regular basis. 

With the opening of Proton City in Tanjung Malim and with it more investment in R&D, motoring writers such as Hutton say much would depend on the new models coming out in the next few years. 

According to Hutton, “lots of confidence and some good products” may help Proton make a bigger impact on the market. 

To senior Proton executives such as Brian Collier, managing director of Proton Cars UK, the sponsorship deal with Norwich City, popularly known as The Canaries, will also help build up the marque in the British market. 

Collier sees its new headquarters alongside Lotus at nearby Hethel and particularly The Canaries home kit, which will carry the Proton logo, will cement ties with the East Anglian community. 

The sponsorship deal certainly looks promising for Proton cars, more so if Norwich City can win promotion to the English Premier League next season. 

Norwich City played in eight “live” matches this season, watched by at least two million viewers per match, and this would be the kind of exposure Proton cars hope for. 

So, can Proton do a Kejian? Only time will tell.  

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