Cars. Where has all the emotion gone?

Toby Talbot
By Toby Talbot | 20 June 2022
Toby Talbot.

Toby Talbot, Chief Creative Officer Ogilvy Network ANZ

Buying a car will always be an emotional decision. No matter what logic you apply to your decision-making process, you're fooling no one.

You choose a car but the car also chooses you.

So why remove all the emotion when it comes to advertising them?

I say this as a die-hard car nut. I love cars. Always have done. It's actually in my blood. A distant relative of mine created the first British car back in 1903, the Talbot. That's the rational reason. The emotional one was my late father. I have an early memory of my dad lusting over a parked up Ferrari Dino when I was a 5-year-old sitting in the back of his altogether less Italian Ford Capri. My mum was bemused. I was enthralled.

One of the ways I have got to indulge in my passion is by making car ads.

I’ve spent many years building various car brands around the world. I loved working on the Toyota brand in New Zealand where for many years, Saatchi & Saatchi has done a sterling job (and Colenso before them) convincing New Zealanders that Toyota is as Kiwi as they are. And boy has it worked. Hilux and its countless irreverent and iconic TV ads (who can forget ‘Bugger’ – no one it seems) have kept that flame burning bright. Even if the Ford Ranger smokes the Hilux on just about every measure today, rural New Zealanders still drive their Hilux proudly around their paddocks as a badge of honour. The ultimate sign of their true ‘New Zil’ness’.

I also enjoyed being the creative guardian of the Volkswagen brand at DDB on both sides of the Tasman. Yes, Diesel gate eroded the world’s trust. But once again, creating loveable work that drills into local insights helped weather that particularly brutal storm.

Latterly I worked in Barcelona on the SEAT brand. For the first time I was involved in marketing a car in the same place where the car was made. Real provenance at last. Did it make it any easier? Short answer is no. The core advertising message had focussed on the car being inspired by the city of Barcelona. The same city I found out that also happens to be the most popular location in Western Europe for car shoots. Which visually at least made the ‘Made in Barcelona’ USP lose its U for me.

Now I’m back in Australia, a a country with a culture that’s heavily linked to the car thanks to the sheer size of the continent. Grey nomads and their perpetual circling of the country. Tradie utes and their domination of the roads. Beach trip culture. A million campsites. V8s in their annual battle against Mount Panorama. Even the age-old pilgrimage of the east coast between Sydney and Byron via the Pacific Highway.

Local car culture is still huge. Despite the fact that in the last five years not one single car has rolled off an Australian production line.

Manufacturing on Australian shores ceased in late 2017 when a bright red Holden VF rolled off the production line on the 19th of October 2017. Toyota closed up shop in the same month after five decades and Mitsubishi switched the lights off at their Tonsley Park factory way back in 2008.

Apart from the obvious economic impact of closing factories and the shockwaves that sent through the community after thousands of redundancies, I’m interested in the impact on the brands that were once proudly manufactured in Australia. Or is provenance at such an inflection point in automotive engineering and the global industry alike, that it’s become irrelevant in the minds of drivers? Local sales figures and the number of car brands now sold in this market definitely suggest so.

In the decade leading up to the collapse of the Australian car industry, the Australian taxpayer had to foot over $5billion in industry assistance. With low import tariffs the country became flooded with foreign cars that were cheaper and often better equipped to buy. The end was inevitable.

And yet today there are more automotive brands sold in Australia than in mainland Europe, the UK, the US or Japan, for a country that doesn’t make the cars we drive, it clearly hasn’t put us off buying them. To prove the point Kia has managed to accelerate to the 5th largest car seller in just two decades, and models like the Hyundai i30 have slid into the top 5. Both unashamedly imported and neither offering a work ute, or ever lining up at Bathurst.

Now it seems the business has turned in on itself and we are left with boring, wind-tunnel created shapeless brands and similar advertising to match

Beyond the sales data, it got me thinking what role, if any, can a car brand really play in Australian culture in 2022, beyond propping up our favourite sports codes? And is it really necessary to have such an impact?

I believe it is, now more than ever.

Investing in your brand will result in long term business growth as well as insulating you from the inevitable ups and downs of consumer trends, not to mention the wildly unpredictable nature of the world. Both are best navigated by the strongest brands. Brands that I believe have a real and tangible role in culture, not just an expensive 60” TVC. Don’t believe the creative guy? Read a few pages from one of Les Binet or Peter Field’s multiple books, research papers or blog entries.

So, should you be looking to evolve your existing brand platform or considering creating a new one, here are three thoughts that won’t give you the answer but will at least help you navigate the journey.

  1.        Heritage. Don’t underestimate it.

Toyota, Ford and Holden may be vast multinational car brands, but here they helped shape Australian culture and literally built the nation.

So to an ageing population (who are, let’s face it, the demographic more predisposed to buy new cars) that memory is still very much alive in their hearts and minds. Albeit in the dark recesses.

Forget Australia's manufacturing heritage. Look at your  sporting heritage.  Mitsubishi Evo was a serial winner in the Australian rally in the mid '90s. For any petrol heads in their forties and fifties (ie: bullseye target market) that brand equity is still all there to be leveraged.

I still maintain that the best way to impact culture as a car brand is to meet people in a place that is familiar to them. That’s why we should never walk away from the past. Whether a car is manufactured here or not, it will inevitably have a history. Even, as in the case of Toyota in New Zealand, its history is manufactured.

  1.        You’ll never appeal to everyone, unless bland is your brand.

I have met many CMO’s of car brands over the years who spend so much time looking at what their competitors are doing, that bit by bit, they subconsciously end up trying to make the same work. At Ogilvy, we pride ourselves on being unconventional. Car advertising is guilty of being spectacularly conventional. There has been no big winner in the automotive category at Cannes since Audi 'Clowns ‘in 2018. As I write this on the eve of the festival next week, Volkswagen and their live gamification idea for the GTi I believe will do really well. A live broadcast gaming experience hits the right tone. Plenty of emotion. Much more like it.

  1.        Metal versus moment, find a balance

When you look at your screens, so much automotive advertising in Australia today makes Harvey Norman ads look positively restrained. As if a price and a macho voice extolling a list of generic features will tip someone over the edge on what, for many, will be the second biggest purchase in their life after a house.

Cars will always represent much more than price, multi-year warranties and spec lists as long as your arm. They have the power to make you and your passengers feel vital and auto advertising should evoke no lesser emotion.

I’d love to see the current set of car brands adapt, refocus and flourish as disruption is coming, and I’m not talking about alternative fuel sources. I’m talking about aggressive brands such as Nio, Rivian and Lucid. Brands with zero history, heritage or racing pedigree that are free from the baggage of perception and ready to challenge the status quo.

So, from one car lover to another, let’s make some work that matters. Work that culturally cements brands and commercially transforms business.

It can be done.

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