Profile: Making his marque

Peter Duffy, head of marketing at Audi UK
Peter Duffy, head of marketing at Audi UK

Peter Duffy, head of marketing at Audi UK, invested in the brand during the recession to prepare for the recovery.

Some marketers get all the luck. While the majority face a daily battle to gain any attention for their brands, Peter Duffy, head of marketing at Audi UK, can sit back every Friday night and enjoy his charge's featured role in primetime BBC One drama Ashes to Ashes - about as close as you can get to branded content without actually paying for it.

Even the UK's political parties have been publicising Audi models, with Conservative leader David Cameron's face superimposed on a picture of the show's Scotch-drinking, Quattro-driving character DCI Gene Hunt in a series of election posters for both Labour and the Conservatives.

Duffy, who suppresses a chuckle at the mention of all the free advertising, shares few characteristics with the tough-talking TV detective. The 43-year-old possesses an easy charm, and can allow himself a few moments of self-congratulation, given the strong performance of the Volkswagen-owned marque over the past few years.

Investment principle

Since joining from Barclays in 2007, Duffy has overseen a push that has taken Audi to the cusp of becoming the UK's most-loved premium car brand, overtaking German rival Mercedes-Benz in market share and now within touching distance of BMW.

Colleagues are full of praise for the way in which Duffy convinced his sceptical paymasters to continue to invest in marketing while the European car industry teetered on the brink of disaster. Audi splashed out nearly £23m on advertising in 2009, according to Nielsen, ranking it just outside the UK's top 50 spenders.

'We put forward the argument that you invest during a recession, that you continue to invest in the customer, and hopefully you will see some dividend from that further down the line,' says Duffy. 'Even though we didn't benefit from scrappage (the government's sales incentive scheme), hopefully we are better placed to benefit from the recovery as and when that happens.'

It is often remarked that Duffy, by background a financial-services marketer, is something of an anomaly in his industry, in which most marketers serve their time in automotive sales departments before making the switch. He is less effusive in his description of car performance than many of his peers, preferring to talk about brand.

'I think one of the reasons my boss hired me was to bring an external perspective to bear on what we are doing. Consumers make a brand decision, and they have to be attracted before they would consider the products. You need to get brand-building right in a way that drives footfall,' he says.

Giving full creative licence to ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Duffy set about developing a continuous brand campaign that would bring into focus individual models and technological facets, using white colouring as a 'shorthand for premium'.

Over the past two years, a series of almost obstinately abstract campaigns have promoted the work of Audi's engineers, including TV ads featuring giant floating light bulbs, spinning coins and goldfish.

With sales across the industry suffering in the recession, many car marketers have opted to display as many models as possible in ads, but Duffy argues that Audi's 'understated' positioning is the right one.

'What we build are cars with fantastic performance, great design, and an extraordinary interior. The work of the communication is to take one of those things and celebrate it. It is a brand that doesn't spend time trying to be showy, and that resonates with customers,' he says.

Duffy is also prepared to make risky decisions when it comes to the brand's digital strategy. Since launching in 2005, the marque had been largely lauded for its Audi TV channel, broadcast on the Sky and Virgin Media platforms. However, Duffy decided to axe the service late last year, and move the content online to a website designed by digital agency Razorfish.

'There is a commitment to video as a way of communicating, and the Audi Channel was great for us at that time,' he explains. 'It was the most advanced way we could deliver that content to people's homes. What we then saw was the mass adoption of broadband in homes, and BBC iPlayer, which changed the way customers began to view video online.'

The visibility of the Audi marque is likely to increase further later this year with the launch of its first small car, the A1. The model will be backed by a heavyweight campaign, emphasising that, despite the smaller format, the A1 represents all the traditional Audi qualities.

'It is going to energise the brand,' enthuses Duffy. 'I don't think Audi will become defined by the A1, but it is an important new facet to help us attract a younger, more dynamic profile. I think it is a car that will appeal particularly to men.'

However, Duffy ought to be mindful that mainstream popularity is not always positive for premium marques. Just ask BMW: it captured the imagination of the driving public in the 90s, but with that came a sense that traditional BMW drivers were turned off by newcomers to the brand.

Duffy agrees Audi must tread a fine line between looking to grow its market share and alienating the customers who have supported its recent growth.

'The brand has strengthened over the past 10 years, and three years particularly, to the point where we are at parity with key competitors,' he says. 'However, the heart of Audi is understatement. That is what we will continue to position ourselves around, and should protect us against devaluing.'

The marque's next launch, its uber-premium A8, should help Duffy to preserve a sense of luxury. TV and press activity will focus on the almost sci-fi quality of some of the in-car technologies, including the way in which its automatic gearbox can follow satnav information about road conditions.

Duffy is also likely to call on some of the advances in electric and hybrid technology to help maintain the brand's prestige. He claims there is 'no bigger consumer issue than sustainability', and that the market is being affected by a significant shift in consumer behaviour. However, he is keen to avoid the 'follies' of other car brands, and be accused of greenwashing.

'The automotive industry is based on the combustion engine, which is a net polluter, and is not the same as organic food, so we have to be respectful of that. Until we have got to that position of neutrality, we shouldn't wear the clothing of the environmental movement,' he says.

Through a mix of design and fortune, Duffy heads a brand imbued with both a sense of modernity and nostalgia, and one that looks set to accelerate past its rivals over the coming years. The Quattro is fired up and ready to go.

INSIDE WORK
1998-2002: Online director, Barclays
2003-07: Marketing services director, Barclays
2007-present: Head of marketing, Audi UK

OUTSIDE WORK
Family: Married, three children
All-time favourite car: Audi R8 Spyder
Favourite holiday destination: South Africa
Favourite book: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
Favourite brand: Paul Smith

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