At first glance, it is the most unlikely of unions. One of Britain’s most admired brands and a sector which, to put it gently, has sometimes struggled with consumer trust.
The AA was founded 114 years ago by four driving enthusiasts keen to protect and defend the interests of motorists. Since then, that commitment to putting motorists first has helped it grow into the UK’s largest motoring organisation, with more than 13 million members and a brand that is regularly cited among the country’s best-known and most trusted.
Used car sellers can also trace their origins back to the dawn of motoring. There has always been a market for used cars, which can often offer better value than brand new models. Their appeal has grown in recent years as technological advances mean cars are now more reliable, safer and better built – and thus last longer – than ever before. No wonder nearly 8m used cars were sold in Britain last year.
Despite the enduring popularity of their service, used car sellers have long languished – along with journalists, politicians and dare I say it, advertising executives – among the least-trusted of professionals.
However, it’s that apparent mismatch, between motorists’ desire for certainty – which is what underpins the AA brand – and their wariness of the used car industry, that created both the challenge and the opportunity for AA Cars’ new marketing campaign.
Bridging the gap between car dealers and customers
The seeds were planted in 2018, when the AA acquired Vcars, one of the longest-established online marketplaces for used cars.
Like its rivals, many of which emerged from small ad magazines, Vcars was a primarily B2B operation. While it enjoyed a strong relationship with car dealers, who it enabled to reach a huge number of car buyers, its relationship with motorists themselves was often transactional.
The AA’s ethos, whether in its original business of breakdown cover or in its newer offerings in finance, insurance and leisure, has always been to put the consumer at the heart at what it does.
That was, and is, the vision behind AA Cars. Market research told us the AA’s brand and trust would resonate with people looking for a used car. We carried out extensive polling and found many consumers lack confidence when it comes to buying a second-hand vehicle. Most telling of all, many of these would-be buyers felt there was no brand in the market that adequately met their needs.
Our solution was to create a used car platform that baked in reassurance for customers. Reassurance about each and every one of the cars offered for sale, and about the dealers selling them.
AA Cars is the only major platform to give car buyers a detailed rundown of each vehicle’s history, confirming they have not been written off or stolen, and are free of any outstanding credit. We also provide details of each dealer’s reputation and expertise, giving customers both the information and the confidence they need to book a test drive.
We also made a strategic decision to only work with professional car dealers we have vetted and approved. This cost us the revenue we might have made from the listings of private sellers, but it gained us a far greater dividend in terms of customer trust.
Our “Approved Dealer” scheme also gives a powerful differentiator to the dealers we work with. By leveraging the power of the AA’s brand, they are able to demonstrate their professionalism, build greater trust with customers and ultimately sell more cars.
In barely a year, we’ve evolved the AA Cars brand from a largely B2B service to one with a significant B2C focus, which bridges the trust gap between car dealers and their customers.
Crossing uncharted waters with energy and agility
Several factors have enabled us to make that change successfully. One is the autonomy granted to AA Cars within the wider AA Group.
My team and I have run with the business with the energy and disruptive mindset of a start-up, while also leveraging the AA’s century of brand equity.
In my previous career, I have worked with large, data-driven companies such as P&G and Sky, as well as with several entrepreneurial start-ups. At AA Cars we are forging a business that combines the best of both cultures – basing decisions on robust customer research, while also moving at start-up speed and constantly looking out for new opportunities and ideas.
We’ve been helped on our journey by a talented team of marketing and advertising specialists, including the creative agency Adam&Eve, media agency Goodstuff, digital agency Croud and the social agency WMG.
Our latest through-the-line campaign, which saw us reach out both to customers who are already looking for a car, as well as those merely open to suggestion, was underpinned by a striking finding from our market research – 86% of car buyers are reassured by the knowledge a dealer is associated with the AA brand.
The used car market may have begun as uncharted territory for the AA. However, by pairing the group’s tried and tested, customer-centric ethos with research-led insights – and the willingness to act on them – we’re proud to have transformed AA Cars into a disruptor brand.
Together we’re working to introduce something the used car market was crying out for – buyer confidence.
James Fairclough is chief executive officer of AA Cars.