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Land Rover

Brand profile: Reports of the Land Rover Defender's death have been greatly exaggerated

By Alastair Duncan, chief strategy officer

February 3, 2016 | 6 min read

Some 68 years after its conception on a Welsh beach, the final Land Rover Defender has rolled off the production line. To paraphrase those dreadful 'What can marketers learn from the end on an era?' LinkedIn posts, in the case of Land Rover, there actually are useful lessons. Here are five thoughts.

A Land Rover Defender ad campaign

1. Look at the big picture

It’s a familiar pattern. Foreign giant buys struggling British brand, massively improves the product, people buy them again, profit ensues. Along the way, costly products and processes are ditched. In fact Land Rover, under Tata's ownership, has become an enormous global success, sustaining Jaguar Land Rover's growth and underpinning its future. To some enthusiasts, one victim of this change is the humble Defender. Emissions legislation has made it too costly to make.

The Defender is, however, far more than just a car. It's a design icon, the root expression of Land Rover's capability, a timeless friend of farmers and the armed forces everywhere in the world. Surely the world will miss such an iconic vehicle?

2. Authenticity gives the brand permission to grow

The familiar Land Rover shape was first drawn in the sand on a beach in Wales in the 1940s. Engineer Maurice Wilks and his brother Spencer, a senior man at Rover, capitalised on a pragmatic requirement for a 'British answer to the Jeep' to get it made. Launched in April 1948, it's been popular ever since. Over 2 million were produced, many of which are still running, sustained by an adoring and enthusiastic community.

In recent years, however, Defender has sold rather fewer than posh cousins the Range Rover and Evoque. Farmers and outback folks turned to bigger, more reliable Japanese pick-ups. It is, however, that classic Land Rover brand 'go anywhere' functionality, best expressed in the Defender model, that enables the Range Rover to exist. With it, the brand has permission to explore adventure and authenticity in the premium and luxury segments. Without its 4x4 'brand truth', Land Rover could never have argued it was the 'best 4x4 by far' – a marvellous strap line for many years – even when it actually wasn’t the best, or to be honest, the most reliable.

3. Unique design gives the brand a competitive edge

Built to service the needs of farmers without roads, the Land Rover vehicle was distinctive from the beginning. You could switch from two-wheel to four-wheel drive. It had a function called 'Power Take Off' that meant you could run other machines from its engine. This gave it utility far beyond getting from field A to paddock B. Its rugged looks, colour (using surplus RAF paint) and the lighter 'Birmabright' alloy material (developed in wartime for aircraft manufacture) lent something special to the package.

These were significant differences that drivers could get behind. A long wheelbase, canvas covers and other variations came along, but a single-minded design held true from the beginning, through the Land Rover Series, Land Rover One Ten, becoming the Land Rover Defender in 1990. The distinctive 'indestructible, reliable' look, with its 'go anywhere' capabilities, remained a constant and kept the brand alive through the darker years.

4. Belief in the brand starts at the top

There’s plenty of experience at the top of Jaguar Land Rover to make the product better than it’s ever been. In describing the last Defender, Dr Ralf Speth, JLR CEO, said: "We celebrate what generations of men and women have done since the outline for the Land Rover was originally drawn in the sand. The Series Land Rover, now Defender, is a vehicle that makes the world a better place, often in some of the most extreme circumstances."

From a brand point of view, a vehicle that genuinely performs in the toughest conditions is vital in a market crowded by so many 'soft roaders' – sports utility vehicles that rarely venture close to any rough terrain. It must have been a hard decision to end production of the Defender, but it seems the story doesn’t end there.

5. Find a future-proofed audience

Jaguar Land Rover has shifted the mentality of the business from an exporter to a global brand. It now has a clear portfolio of products for identified market segments. In other words, if you want to sell cars, get the right people to buy them. In the case of Defender, the product was running out of headroom in its current form.

We’ve seen it before. BMW did exactly the same thing with Mini, taking an old product (that many crash test dummies could fit into, but wouldn’t get out of after a side collision) and turning it into the BMW-built MINI. This appealed to a more upmarket urban customer with an optimistic outlook, and sales shot up. No doubt Land Rover expect to pull off a similar feat with the new Defender, coming soon, according to Gerry McGovern, chief creative officer. "People will know it’s worthy of carrying the badge," he says. "It will be able to do everything it says on the tin."

Until then, you can still get a Defender through the Specialist Vehicle Operations unit at Jaguar Land Rover. They won’t be cheap, but the well-heeled enthusiast won’t mind.

Alastair Duncan is chief strategy officer at Splash Worldwide and was a founding partner of Jaguar Land Rover's in-house Spark44 agency

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