Peter York On Ads

Vauxhall must do better than this to prove it's not naff to drive a Zafira
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The Independent Online

I'm going to have to talk about something unpleasant – downright offensive for some – brands and branding.

I understand how the more sensitive among you feel. It's the language of cynicism and spin. The language of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson and the other great men who made Britain what it is today.

There's a sub-text here, too, of course (all cultural studies lectures must have a sub-text). You feel branding and brandologicalism isn't quite the same as running the Treasury or being a premier literary novelist. For you it remains socially suspect, not 100 per cent.

But it's difficult to maintain this stance – it's the Victorian distinction between being "in trade" and being a Proper Gent. And now every role and institution from the former establishment seems in thrall to trade and speaks the language of brands. An educated generation whose parents no more talked brand-talk than they did cultural slumming likes nothing so much as shooting the breeze about, say, the competitive brand appeals of Pizza Hut and McDonald's.

And when you get former establishment members talking about their own "personal brand", and clergy describing their flocks as up or downmarket, then you might as well give in. Don't fight it, go with the flow. Move on. Marketing-speak is for everyone.

The central precept of marketing, the big idea that sounds cynical but is actually dizzyingly philosophical, is simply this – perceptions are everything. Is this a dagger I see before me? Of course, if that's how you feel.

If perceptions are everything and the market is always right, then no amount of squawking from unloved brands about the quality of their products, the excellence of their service and their fantastic value matters if the market's taken against you. The lovely products can't be relevantly lovely, the service can't be doing what people want, and value isn't value if you don't want it at any price. And it affects real things like your ability to charge a premium and make supernormal profits.

I don't want to do the branding apologist's job for them but they've got a point. Some of the most valuable firms in the world have a market capitalisation that values the brand at more than all the other assets put together. That's what it's like to be Coca-Cola or Apple.

So what can it feel like to be Vauxhall? A long-established, British-based car maker (actually owned by General Motors since the Twenties), not bad at selling volume cars with silly names to Brits. They're the cars you see everywhere but don't really notice. And sometimes petrolheads tell you that the tuned-up Vauxhall this or that accelerates better than a Porsche.

But none of this mitigates the Clarkson verdict, that Vauxhall is a naff brand whose value at auction wouldn't buy much more than a single Damien Hirst.

The current Zafira and Meriva commercial (get those names!) seems intent on distraction rather than tackling the problem. It's a mass of high-concept, hi-tech advertising, with a big idea that justifies a whole lot of "how did they do that?" special effects. But viewers know computers can do anything and they can't tell this ad from the one where the trees bend as you pass or the one where buildings move around.

In this commercial, old ladies extend bus shelters to get a seat; girls pull bus seats together to canoodle with shy boys; buildings move aside to let you overtake. All to the sound of something eclectically contrasty – a novelty version of 'Sweet Georgia Brown'. "Imagine a world where everything changes, effortlessly," they say. Just try that on Clarkson.