A launch for the 21st century

Marketing: Vauxhall pins its hopes on a futuristic advertising campaign to kickstart sales of the Vectra

STANDING out from the crowd has become the number one priority for car manufacturers grappling with the recent downward trend in new car sales. This applies as much to marketing as product innovation, according to Vauxhall, which launched its replacement for the 20-year-old Cavalier - the Vectra - at the London motor show at Earl's Court last week.

The success of the Vectra is critical for Vauxhall, which has spent pounds 1.1bn on its development, an investment that contributed to the $98m (pounds 62m) loss after tax that General Motors announced last week for its European operations during the third quarter of 1995. However, the company is confident the Vectra can help it topple Ford, the market leader in the competitive, fleet-dominated "upper-medium" sector of the car market, by boosting Vauxhall's existing 16 per cent share to 20 per cent.

That is why the company is investing heavily in a multi-media advertising and marketing campaign, which includes the UK's longest TV commercial - a 12-minute ad due to be broadcast on Tuesday - and heavy use of new media, including an Internet site, interactive ads and CD-Rom. Wolfgang Schubert, Vauxhall's marketing communications director, explains: "The Vectra is our most important launch of the decade."

It is the most extensive use of new media for any UK product launch to date, claims Jerry Judge, chief executive of Lowe Howard Spink, the advertising agency behind the launch. And it clearly illustrates how car advertising has had to change in recent years.

"Modern cars are designed optimally - for what the Nineties consumer wants - so are inevitably more similar than they are different from each other," Mr Judge says. "The real difference with the Vectra is under the skin - the way it drives, and that's a hard thing to communicate."

The Vectra is positioned as a car for the new millennium, featuring technology that puts you in charge. Its launch campaign incorporates futuristic imagery and spans all available media. Two conventional TV commercials feature images of future change and innovation reflected in the shiny bodywork of the car. Press ads convey product information. Radio and posters are also being used.

New media play an integral branding role, says Mr Schubert. "With our 'technology that puts you in charge' positioning, it was important to use all means of emerging media now available thanks to new technology," he says. Print ads will invite potential customers to set their VCRs to record the 12-minute commercial to be broadcast at 5am on Tuesday. Vauxhall is the first advertiser to use Carlton UK's Spot Plus+ initiative, a tool allowing advertisers to use VideoPlus+ technology. This works by the advertiser featuring a VideoPlus+ code in print ads; viewers can punch in the code to automatically pre-set their VCRs.

Potential buyers will also be able to access additional product information via the Internet, which will be distributed free of charge, and also from kiosks on train platforms and an 0800 telephone number. "There are many ways which customers can approach us, unlike the traditional route whereby people saw the TV ad or poster or visited their local retailer," Mr Schubert says.

"It's very much about creating a philosophy - the car for the next millennium - and it is an approach which reflects the maturity of the market and our customers."

Successfully launching a car in the mid-1990s demands a very different combination of elements from those that once sufficed, agrees Mr Judge.

"Car launches today must be about seduction where in the past, to put it crudely, they were more about rape." The campaign has been created to appeal to a wider audience than current buyers. "The Vectra has all the qualities to be just as successful as the Cavalier: we don't want to rush it, we want people to understand it properly," he adds.

This is critical, Mr Schubert says, not least because of Vauxhall's decision to abandon the Cavalier name. "The Cavalier is the reason for the revitalisation of the Vauxhall brand name, which is now perceived as value for money, quality and low fuel consumption. The Vectra is the next step," he explains. "Vectra marks a move into a more aspirational field: as well as everything you get with the Cavalier, it's also a car you want to drive."

It is part of a longer-term strategic aim to gradually move Vauxhall more up-market, he says. And it offers an opportunity to reshape the company's approach to marketing. But the launch of the Vectra is also a calculated risk.

For despite news last week of a sharp lift in car sales during the first two weeks of October, chiefly from the fleet sector, fears remain about the overall downward trend in the new-car market.

And at last week's motor show, car manufacturers once again renewed calls for government measures to boost consumer confidence.

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