Motoring: Failure is not an option

How do you sell a German-financed car on the strength of its traditional British values?
THE ROVER 75. Tens of thousands of British jobs, millions of pounds of investment from the Government and BMW and the livelihood of hundreds of Rover dealers all depend on it. This is the most important new car launch of the 1990s and the last gasp for one of Britain's oldest manufacturers.

If the 75 fails, there will be a domino effect which could leave a gaping hole in the manufacturing heart of the Midlands, the UK economy and British engineering credibility.

Failure isn't an option. Selling the 75 is going to be an important job, so Rover is not leaving anything to chance. When you go into a showroom to enquire about the latest Rover model you won't meet just any old sales executive, but a Rover 75 specialist. I know, because I've been trained to be one.

Well, I don't think any dealer would be mad enough to let me loose in their showroom after sitting a one day course, but Rover have very kindly allowed me to attend a 75 Specialist Workshop. At a conference hotel on the outskirts of Bromsgrove I'm going to find out exactly what a Rover 75 specialist will have to do to convince us to buy the car. Perhaps even more importantly, I will discover exactly who Rover thinks is the typical 75 customer.

It's 9am and I'm in a room with the last few sales staff out of 300 to attend the course. Joe and Frank are from Liverpool, Aidan from a London dealer, Vicki is from Derby and Mike from Hull. Firstly, there is a pep talk from Rover product manager Emma Hill, to make sure we know what the Rover brand is all about.

"Rover stands for comfort, luxury, elegance and style. By contrast BMW is sporty, dynamic and has great handling. The Rover 75 is not a BMW - our customers are not looking for the ultimate driving machine." Ms Hill uses BMW's long-running ad slogan to distance Rover from its German owner. She is open enough to highlight research which shows that non-Rover owners regard the product as overpriced, unreliable, old fashioned and not able to hold its value. Even worse, the drivers all wear flat caps and go for Sunday morning drives in their slippers.

Existing Rover owners, though, turn out to be concerned with comfort, value, and are not obsessed by the image of the car. In brand positioning terms, Rover sees itself between mass-market manufacturers like Ford and Fiat and emergent prestige marques such as Saab and Audi. At the top of the tree, though, are the motor vehicle "royal family", who - much like our own royals - happen to be German: BMW and Mercedes. So it is a tough job, but Geoff Purkis, Rover's dealer-training manager, is quite prepared to do it. He dims the lights, pushes a button, and Rover's brand values video is played.

The most important revelation for me is who exactly Rover believe will buy the 75. Research indicates they will be 35 to 54 years old, in full employment, well educated, well off (but not wealthy), and 30 per cent female.

Prior to attending the course, the impression I had was that if you are not a white, golf-playing, middle-class over-achiever, then the 75 may not be for you. But when I chat to some of the sales people on the course, the orders they had already taken for the car include train drivers and pensioners, so the 75 may well have a wider appeal.

Next is damage limitation time. The 75 should have been launched in March, but there have been many delays. Another video is played. It is brutally honest. A finished 75, which looks pristine, is criticised in minute detail by a quality-control manager. Essentially, the first batch of cars was not up to standard and that standard is the current BMW 5 series.

The amazing thing is the enthusiasm for the 75 amongst the showroom staff, who truly believe it is a great car. Quality is everything to the sales people, from the finish of the car, to the way potential 75 customers will be treated when they walk into a Rover showroom.

By the time that you read this, Rover 75s will have become the subject of a huge advertising campaign, and the British car buyer will be in a position to decide the fate of the car. But whatever happens, it won't be for lack of effort on the part of the 75 specialist.