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The nucleus of an idea

By The Drum | Administrator

August 27, 2004 | 7 min read

If Proton was a celebrity, its agent would currently be scurrying around trying to get its client on the next series of “I’m a Celebrity Get me Outta Here” in a bid to resurrect its career. In its 20-year-plus heritage, Proton has seen its fair share of highs and lows. It just so happens that, as we approach the mid-noughties, Proton has been floating along up a certain unpleasant creek. Fortunately, Proton isn’t about to let a little thing like having no paddle stop it from reaching safety.

Malaysian-owned, Proton was formed in the early 1980s as a partnership with Mitsubishi, and was designed not for commercial reasons, but to give the country its first manufacturing industry. However, it wasn’t until later in the decade when popularity and in-turn production stepped up that the vehicles began to be imported into the UK market.

As the 90s approached, Proton had established itself as the fastest growing franchise in the UK, and by 1993 14,000 cars had been sold. Unfortunately, these glory days were not to last, as in 2002 Proton recorded just 2,700 sales. Something had to be done.

Enter Simon Park, sales and marketing general manager at Proton, who has very kindly offered to reveal what went wrong and what is going to be done. Clearly very passionate about the brand, Park is quick to point out just what it was that attracted people to buying Proton vehicles back in its heyday. “Proton’s brand values were of good value and style. Our affiliation with Mitsubishi meant that we could offer Japanese quality, and our Malaysian parentage was reflected in the style of the range.”

He continues: “This seemed to work very well and in the mid-1990s the Malaysian holding company bought Lotus – this was a sign that Proton had become a serious player in the market.”

However, while the acquisition reflected Proton’s ambition to lower its anchor at the business end of the market, the subsequent years were far from plain sailing. Park explains: “Our range was very limited and this didn’t help the brand, especially against bigger manufacturers who were fast developing their range and spending big on marketing.

“There’s been no concerted marketing at Proton since the mid-90s. Beforehand, there had been a lot of product placement, giving away cars in game shows, but after the mid-90s, it really wouldn’t have been productive to indulge in heavy marketing, as our product range was still too limited. We relied on our database and strong customer retention.”

As reported in the August issue of Adline, things are changing at Proton’s Norwich base. The brand is desperate to regain a sizeable market share and is redefining its brand proposition. Park concedes, “Research indicates that there is a very low brand awareness of Proton in the UK.”

He adds: “Within our customer base, I think we’re seen as offering value for money and a quality service. Outside, I think there are elements of this, but there’s a problem with people seeing Proton as being cheap or, worse still, not really having any opinion of the brand”.

However, Park believes this could be to Proton’s advantage. “It’s like we’re starting from scratch, except that we have a very loyal customer base already. When the time comes to market the new vehicles to new customers, we can market the new values of the brand.”

To kick off the revitalised brand, Proton has appointed a new marketing partner. Bournemouth-based Marketing Matters was chosen ahead of two other agencies to launch the rebrand and three new vehicles, as well as creating a new integrated campaign.

Park says: “We had a prior association with Marketing Matters and along with two other agencies – who had persistently chased us over the last few years – we held a pitch. We also decided to only look at agencies based outside of London. This is mainly because we felt the value for money lies outside of London. We weren’t looking for something creative for creativity’s sake. The important thing was to have something that was sensible and strategic, as well as being innovative and creative.

“We also needed some sound advice and people we knew we could work with, especially because we are a small team. It was a difficult decision as all of the agencies produced creative that met the brief. We just felt our relationship with Marketing Matters and their understanding of Proton was vital in relaunching the brand.”

With an agency in place, Proton is ready to launch GEN-2, the newest Proton, into the UK market. Discussing the new cars, Park says: “The new vehicles are very stylish. The interiors have a round theme, look very sporty and sexy. We’re not sure how this will sit with our existing customers, but we have plans to market the cars to a slightly younger audience, who will hopefully like the style.”

However, Park is aware of the difficulty in relaunching the brand and launching a new product. He states: “It’s going to take time. Over the next four to five months we’ll be looking to our customer database to promote the GEN2, then we’ll start targeting new customers. We’ve done a great deal of research and held a series of focus groups. We’ve priced it very competitively at £8,995.”

Park also cites the likes of Kia, Hyundai and Daewoo as Proton’s strongest competitors in the “value for money” market and is aware that these firms have much bigger budgets when it comes to marketing spend. “We have to be far more tactical with our marketing, as we simply don’t have the budgets that they have. We are using our money very wisely. We have excellent CRM and lead management programmes in place. When the time is right to advertise it will be done in the relevant trade press and national press.”

Any such advertising will be saved until the second of the new vehicles is launched in February 2005. That way Proton will have two new vehicles in the range and one more on the horizon. The content of the advertising, like the new 2005 vehicles, is a closely guarded secret. Parks has hinted that the creative will be innovative, but insists that it will reflect the changes that Proton is going through – “More of an evolution than a revolution.” Marketing Matters is also acting as Proton’s press office and has begun working on point-of-sale material and a new product brochure.

In the meantime, Proton will be concentrating on getting things right with its dealers. As Park explains: “One of the problems we have is that there are far fewer Proton dealers around nowadays. Nine years ago there were 200 dealers in the UK; there are just 70 now. Within the next 12 to 18 months we need to get this up to about 150. We also need to ensure the dealers are of a high quality – we’re only as good as our dealers.”

The next 18 months will be testing times for Proton, Park and Marketing Matters. Unable to match the big budgets of its peers, Proton has been careful to lay down the foundations of its proposition before any marketing activity is launched and will need to have its foot to the floor in order to out-perform its already well-established rivals.

Summarising Proton’s new era, Park concludes: “Proton has a long-term brand vision of being recognised as a low-volume, premium priced automotive manufacturer operating within niche market sectors. Our challenge is to re-invigorate the brand in the UK and attract fresh customers through a new generation of Proton vehicle.”

By appointing an experienced marketing partner in Marketing Matters and doing its utmost to maintain a proactive relationship, the new generation Proton could well be on the road to success.

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