Helen Edwards on Branding: Why flag-waving is flawed

Helen Edwards on Branding
Helen Edwards on Branding

Vauxhall's attempt to play on British pride by sponsoring home nations football teams is outdated.

The most noticeable ad on air at the moment is the 60-second spot launching Vauxhall's sponsorship of the home nations football teams. The ad is an easy-to-watch amalgam of ordinary British people, England team talent, and a soaring Wembley skyline, held together with a big track. What doesn't hold together is the thinking behind the deal.

According to Richard Hughes, Vauxhall's head of marketing communications, the aim of the £25m initiative is to 'promote the brand's British credentials'. To underline that, the spot cameos a portion of Vauxhall's 4000-strong UK factory workforce swapping the production line for the touchline, standing in line for the national anthem.

Duncan Aldred, Vauxhall's managing director, adds a more nuanced slant on the domestic theme, observing that British people are 'passionate about football and cars'.

So they are. They drive to watch club teams graced by Brazilians, Italians, Dutchmen, Frenchmen, and Nigerians, in cars built by Germans, Koreans, Swedes and Japanese.

If their favoured club happens to include a home-grown Gerrard, Wilshere or Giggs, it is because that player has earned his place in the squad through sheer ability, in competition with the best in the world.

He is not there out of sentiment.

Sir Alex Ferguson does not name his team sheet based on a desire for a bit more Scottishness in midfield or a touch more Welshness on the wing.

Similarly, those who opt for British-made cars do so out of perceived style and quality considerations, both at the brand and model level. A car is a big-ticket item; patriotism is not a reason to choose. If it were, our motorways would be clogged up with 11-reg Wolseys, Austins and Hillmans.

Of course, this is not to say that Vauxhall should deny its British roots. They are present in the brand at a subliminal level - but that is exactly where provenance is generally best left. Vauxhall argues that emotional bonding will be achieved through the sheer depth of the sponsorship, which embraces women's, youth, junior and disability teams across all four home nations. Certainly, that is something that can be used in PR to help create a feel-good brand halo.

Once the European Championships kick off next June, though, followed by the World Cup in 2014, it is association with the senior national sides that will dominate. An unfortunate symbolic parallel is only too possible here: British isn't good enough. Over the past 13 years, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have lacked the quality to make the World Cup. In last year's finals, England failed to score against Algeria, ranked 46th in the world.

If the Vauxhall-sponsored team suffers humiliation again at the hands of Germany, in either competition, the conclusion may reluctantly be drawn that football and cars are two things the Germans do better than us.

'Made in Britain' has always been a last-ditch tactical ploy, the makeshift refuge of UK brands with little else to shout about. For the sake of those 4000 British Vauxhall employees, who deserve better, let's hope that it is not the unmaking of the brand.

Helen Edwards, PPA Columnist of the Year (Business Media), has a PhD in marketing and an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers.


- In 1903 the Vauxhall Iron Works Company Limited launched its first car, which looked a bit like a four-wheel bike; it had a slow-revving single-cylinder engine. With its second A-Type car, Vauxhall beat Rolls-Royce on a 200-mile speed test. For the boy racers of the time, the A-Type was also available with 'sporting coachwork'.

- Vauxhall's Griffin emblem is adapted from a 13th-century coat of arms given by King John to a loyal mercenary soldier, Fulk de Brent. He built Fulk's Hall in what is now south London. Over time the house and the district around it became known as Vauxhall, which is where the original Iron Works was founded.

- During World War II, Vauxhall fast-tracked a tank design to produce the Churchill. The Mark III was the only British tank that could withstand a pounding from the German Tiger tank's 88mm tungsten carbide shot.

- In 1975 Vauxhall launched the Cavalier - initially positioned as a big family car. Over the following 20 years, the Cavalier went head-to-head with the Ford Cortina, and then the Mondeo, to win hearts and minds.

- Now Britain's second biggest-selling car brand, Vauxhall Motors has recently emerged from an overhaul of senior management, which involved the appointments of a new managing director and marketing director.


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