Citigate Smarts take on SkodaTen years ago the Skoda brand was seriously devoid of any sex appeal. Likewise selling the merits of nuclear power to a sceptical public was considered a mission impossible. Nicola Smith speaks to clients and agencies about selling the unsellable.
When nuclear power plant Windscale was re-named Sellafield, it was a clear effort to dispel its association with radiation leaks. Likewise, Guinness was re-born as Diageo, after its merger with Grand Metropolitan, to distance itself from the infamous Guinness scandal.
But does a bit of re-branding fool the public when it comes to selling the suddenly unsellable? Think Royal Mail and Consignia; think British Airways dropping its ethnic tail flags.
Are some brands trying to be too clever?
Whether they like it or not, the truth is that everyone can learn from Skoda.
“When the UK started importing Skodas in the 1970s, they got a deservedly lousy reputation – they were ugly and they didn’t perform," says Chris Hirst, client services director of London agency Fallon.
The product improved dramatically in the 1990s when it was bought by Volkswagen, but the negative perception of the brand remained. Says Hirst: “It was still far from cool, and it wouldn't sell.”
After a number of failed attempts to re-market the product, Skoda held its hands up and decided to appeal to people from a level of realism and honesty.
“When they approached us, they knew they couldn’t ignore the problem,” says Hirst. “We decided to be down to earth, self-deprecating and humble.”
There followed, of course, a series of highly successful television and print ads that played on people’s disbelief that a car that looked so appealing and drove so well could be a Skoda.
Hirst explains: “The ads said ‘We know what you think’ and made people laugh with us, not at us. It encouraged an affection for the brand.”
When the campaign launched in March 2000, about 20,000 cars were being sold every year. Now the figure is in the region of 40,000.
Honesty clearly pays.
But, while Skoda had little to lose, other companies must be careful to weigh up the risk involved – often, situations are politically and morally sensitive.
Nottingham agency Audax worked with Wade Furniture Group, a company that used tropical hardwood veneers in its furniture, when consumers started chaining themselves to shop railings in protest against destruction of the rainforest.
The agency's managing director, Rosie Featherstone, says: “We helped this client to take a proactive approach; they supported a UK-based charity that researched ways of regenerating tropical forests. It received significant industry leadership as a result, and won UK and European awards for its efforts.”
Oil giant Shell has also reaped the rewards of not burying its head in the sand.
However, it took a hard lesson – the very public Brent Spar North Sea confrontation with Greenpeace in 1995 – to learn the value of this approach.
“It was a wake-up call,” says Judy Everett, manager of global corporate advertising at Shell.
“It prompted us to look at external communications and be more transparent, and we realised the need to engage with people outside of traditional stakeholders.”
As part of a wider strategy, which included a radical change in structure and reporting processes, an advertising campaign was launched.
Press and internet ads focused on communicating environmental and human rights messages, saying “This is Shell’s view – what do you think?”
The TV campaign showed Shell people ‘living the values’, such as a scientist developing fuel cells.
“We want to listen to what people have to say, and this creates a dialogue,” says Everett.
But the public is ever wiser and increasingly demanding, and a company can’t get away with simply paying lip service to ethics.
“It has to be more than skin deep,” says Featherstone. “If they do not 'walk the talk', then the risks to themselves and their reputation will far outweigh any short-term benefits they may gain.”
One of Audax’s clients had just embarked on an environmental programme when one of its directors purchased components from an "inappropriate source". The board grasped the nettle and dismissed the director.
“If the company had not taken a hard line, they would have been denigrated for the cynical exploitation of 'green wash'. And once trust is lost, it is almost impossible to regain,” maintains Featherstone.
Nigel Sarbutts, newly installed managing director of Manchester-based Connectpoint PR, and formerly of Harrison Cowley, took a similarly “straight-up” approach to forge a relationship with a sceptical media when he headed up the communications programme surrounding the decommissioning of Sellafield.
“There was a mutual mistrust between the nuclear industry and the media, so a lot of our work involved going with an open hand to the media and inviting them to have a look for themselves,” he explains.
“It was a leap of faith, because it is an area that commonly gets misreported and it could have backfired. But being transparent promoted a greater understanding between the client, UKAEA, and the press, educating people and communicating a technical issue accurately.”
Preston-based design agency Forepoint faced the same hurdles when it was tasked with producing a brochure that explained BNFL’s role in electricity generation.
The resulting brochures offered a colourful, simple look at how electricity works, as well as addressing issues such as nuclear waste and radiation.
Keith Noble, design director at Forepoint, says: “We were able to give BNFL the tools to communicate complex information in a digestible form."
The brochures subsequently received two awards from the British Association of Communicators in Business.
Why did they work? “Honesty, clarity and personality,” says Noble.
Some brands can even build a cult following based on honesty.
In 1996, Chiswick-based Denison Design was charged with creating the packaging for Death cigarettes, a brand launched by the Enlightened Tobacco Company.
“It was aimed at a younger audience and had to be straightforward,” says Tessa Denison. “It was just another way to sell – by saying exactly what the product did. The whole ethos was about selling something that kills; it wasn’t supposed to be glamorous.”
The company created a noted coffin packet and a spoof Royal Warrant, replacing the shield with a coffin. The work was shortlisted for the London International Advertising Awards.
While honesty pays, leadership is also an important factor, particularly when the unexpected occurs.
But it can often be a hard and brave decision to make, as Sarbutts points out: “Look at the Perrier/Benzine scare in 1990. The company took the initiative and quickly removed all bottles from every shelf worldwide.
"It was decisive and expensive action to take. But, while Perrier has never recovered its market share, I bet it recovered more than if it hadn’t taken the lead.”
Even without unfortunate incidents twisting fate, companies may still find they simply have to admit they were wrong if they are to keep the public on-side.
When Royal Mail changed its name to Consignia in an effort to reflect its more international set-up, there was uproar.
Less than two years (and £1m) later, the arrival of a new chairman gave it a good opportunity to respond, acknowledging its mistake and changing the group name to ... Royal Mail Group.
Christine Gregory, Royal Mail’s PR manager, admitted: “Consignia was intended to be a group name – we didn’t anticipate it being used as much as it was.”
It seems the secret of successfully marketing a challenging brand is simplicity.
“It’s the laws of the playground,” says Sarbutts. “We learn from an early age to tell the truth, and hold our hands up and apologise if we do something wrong. The same rules apply here.”