Right from its launch into the UK last April, Daewoo has adopted a novel approach to shifting metal. The company organised a huge market research exercise to find 200 "guinea pigs" who would each receive a free car for a year to help Daewoo tailor its service and products. Around 180,000 hopefuls applied and each was sent a detailed questionaire to discover their likes and dislikes about car buying.
Car salesmen have rarely enjoyed a good press down the years - the snake in the sheepskin easing around his forecourt and off-loading his "lovely little runners" is one of the oldest stereotypes going. Even so, Daewoo's findings were spectacularly damning: customers apparently rated car salesmen "marginally higher than serial killers". Pushy, intimidating and patronising were some of the kinder adjectives. 63 per cent felt they had been worked over in a "hard sell" and 78 per cent found they had been treated worse after buying the car than when making the original decision.
It is hardly news that the weak link in keeping the customer satisfied has always been the dealers rather than those who actually make the cars. Few cars rust or rattle any more and many look physically similar. So how buyers are treated is fast becoming a vital point of differentiation. BMW, for example, cottoned on to this some while back.
"Most manufacturers have been pouring money into the dealer network," says Patrick Farrell, Daewoo's marketing director who was poached from Rover. "It's all persuasion and cajoling but a lot of effort has been wasted. I can remember amazing tales from my time at Rover. For example the occasion when a purchaser took a new car away with just a cup of petrol in it, went on to the motorway and ran out of fuel. He phoned the dealer who charged a pounds 70 call out fee when he arrived with the fuel can."
To avoid any such nightmares Daewoo decided it would keep close control of the process by trying direct selling. The company ditched the idea of a franchised dealer network and set up its own permanent car supermarkets called Motor Shows and Car Centres, a highly expensive exercise. "We knew right from the start that we'd touched a nerve in the UK market," says Mr Farrell. "When you say to the average Brit that you "cut out the middle man" it tends to work. We're very into bargains here."
Having publicly clambered aboard the customer care bandwagon with a totally unknown and untried product, Daewoo knew that it would have to provide an after-sales service second to none. Each car came with a three year warranty, three years' free servicing with home pick up and courtesy car, RAC membership, 12 months road tax, no delivery fee and a 30 day money- back offer. The only catch was that there was to be no haggling over price.
To broadcast its arrival, Daewoo hired Duckworth, Finn, Grubb, Waters, an advertising agency based in Soho, London. They came up with a quirky strategy notable for a lack of glamorous women, long shots of winding roads or tyres dramatically spitting gravel. To overcome the "Daewho?" problem it adopted the self-deprecating "biggest car company you've never heard of" slogan. The latest television effort has an elderly lady in a crash helmet running into a wall.
Daewoo was received with considerable cynicism in the trade. However, doing things in such an unconventional fashion appears to have worked. Daewoo is the most successful car launch ever, going from zero to 13,169 sales in eight months. This makes the company 17th in the list of 43 manufacturers and already ahead of well established companies such as Mazda. Campaign, the advertising industry magazine, recently awarded Daewoo its Advertiser of the Year prize.
It's maybe as well that all the attention has been focused on how Daewoo sells its cars rather than the vehicles themselves. The two Daewoo models on offer - the Espero and Nexia - are slightly frumpy re-workings of the age-old Cavalier and Astra which have been loaded with desirable extras such as air conditioning. Daewoo make no bones about the product. "It's a bread and butter car," says Patrick Farrell. "Basic transport for people who don't care about the emotional side of motoring. Our purchasers are rational whereas a large number of new car buyers aren't."
So who has been seduced by the Daewoo message? What is the average customer profile? Charlie Dawson, the account director at Duckworth, Finn, Grubb, Waters has a pretty good idea in his mind's eye: "I suppose a teacher with two kids who is bright but not rolling in it. They don't see a car as a status symbol." Canny, careful folk maybe, but not quite as thick skinned as a Lada or Proton driver.