Brand Health Check: Honda

A vehicle recall in the US has exacerbated the brand's existing malaise in the UK.

While not the biggest culprit, Honda, like other Japanese car manufacturers, has recently come under intense scrutiny because of concerns over faults in the engineering of some of its vehicles.

So last month's news that it was recalling more than 400,000 vehicles in the US following complaints that brake pedals felt 'soft' is liable to have made stomachs turn at its UK headquarters, given that the US is where Toyota's recent problems began.

Similar developments have not yet afflicted Honda, but any further damage to its brand would be unwelcome. Last year it was hit by an oversupply of cars in the UK and was forced to temporarily halt production here and go into marketing purdah - so much so that it fell outside Marketing's table of 100 top-spending advertisers in 2009.

Honda has also failed to capitalise on the resurgence in sales of new cars with figures showing that it is bucking the growing market by posting a dramatic decline in its share.

It could be time for Honda to start speaking to its customers in a more confident way. Otherwise, much like its 'Difficult is worth doing' live TV ad that showed skydivers jumping from a plane, Honda's brand reputation could head rapidly downward.

So what should Honda do next? We asked David Lightman, client services director at The Gild, who has worked on the Vauxhall and Chrysler Jeep accounts, and Enda McCarthy, chief executive of Publicis Modem, who once worked on the Honda account.

 

DAVID LIGHTMAN, client services director, The Gild

Soichiro Honda founded Honda on sound engineering principles and held the view that marketing was largely unnecessary - good cars would sell themselves.

Honda has always been an innovative company; it built the first engine to meet the criteria of the 1970 Clean Air Act in the US and gave Toyota's Prius a run for its money by launching its Insight hybrid in Japan in 1999.

Recently, however, Honda has relied more heavily on its brand and marketing than producing great cars and giving consumers a compelling reason to buy them.

The brand created a very strong emotional hook through its strapline 'The power of dreams' and its visually stunning advertising, but that emotional connection does not seem to translate into giving consumers a better understanding of its products or a good enough reason to buy them. What makes a Honda car preferential to the competition?

REMEDY

- Emulate BMW, Audi and Peugeot - all have invested in strong vehicle design and a common aesthetic to bring the brand to life beyond the badge.

- Improve range navigation. Honda has always produced an engineering-led range and consequently there is no obvious way to navigate it, as one would with the offerings from BMW or Peugeot.

- Develop an emotional hook. While 'The power of dreams' resonates with consumers, it does not live beyond the advertising. Honda needs to translate it across the whole consumer experience, from web and showroom to the vehicle itself and the driving experience.

ENDA MCCARTHY, chief executive, Publicis Modem

I worked on Honda in the mid-90s. At the time, the problem was that all Honda owners were over 50 - and even they felt that they had to actively justify their decision to purchase the brand.

'It's got double-wishbone suspension all round - you only see that on sports cars,' and so on.

It wasn't that Honda was boring, it just always seemed to be off the pace, if never far behind. Fast-forward to today and, despite the best efforts of its advertising agency, Wieden & Kennedy, and Jenson Button, who drove for Honda in Formula One from the 2006 season until its withdrawal from the sport in 2008, nothing has really changed.

Last month, Honda recalled 410,000 cars to Toyota's 8m. Toyota was eviscerated in the media. The Honda story already feels like old news. And even in these exceptional circumstances, it feels as though Toyota has gained a first-mover advantage: it is already out there with a fairly dull - but tonally savvy - brand campaign.

Pound for pound, Honda's metal is as good as anyone's and its marketing efforts, in particular its advertising, is better than most. Yet still the brand itself struggles to be all it can be.

REMEDY

- Honda needs to be greater than the sum of its parts and stand for something - safety, reliability, performance and so on.

- Honda has only ever been run by engineers, never marketers. It should re-embrace that heritage.

- Honda has always had amazing bits of kit - NSX, the first Japanese supercar, ASIMO the robot - that could provide the fulcrum for this effort. After all, look at what Toyota has done with the Prius.

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