The Car People – The MCA Management Awards 2008

2 The client’s problem

Ask consumers about the car retail industry and immediately tales of aggressive sales, bad service and poor aftersales care are recounted. Amidst the skepticism, The Car People had to address this perception when seeking to build a credible and successful car supermarket brand. These misgivings had been reinforced by the growth of the car supermarket sector; selling cheap, no-frills cars to undercut and challenge the main dealer market.

Despite their commitment to give consumers an honest, hassle-free car buying experience, The Car People felt that their brand was becoming increasingly tarnished by the industry legacy. Their difference was simply not getting through to prospective customers.

The Car People already had a strong platform for growth. While they had a loyal customer base and strong conversion rates (17% of sales were from repurchases, over 25% from personal recommendation and 40% of visitors converted to sale) they were generally perceived as a small regional player, in a market where size typically generates consumer confidence. Furthermore, they didn’t have the budgets and resources to compete with the incumbent ‘big boys’ such as Carcraft.

What actions could The Car People take to communicate their difference, build trust with consumers and stimulate growth in an increasingly challenging sector?

3 Project background

The Car People initially approached Propaganda to develop a TV advertising campaign to raise awareness and build customer affinity based on the positioning of an honest and hassle-free car purchase experience.

Propaganda immediately identified the need to conduct a programme of customer segmentation and buying behaviour research to independently validate or challenge the existing view of the team at The Car People.

The research programme Propaganda designed sought to understand the profile of The Car People customer and their attitudes, what those customers wanted, and what they thought of the brand. The subsequent positioning contributed to accelerated growth and expansion of The Car People franchise throughout the North of England, with an additional site launch in Summer 2007.

Propaganda understood that if we could not outspend the competition, we would have to out-think them by building a brand proposition that customers believed in and engaged with. The last thing the brand needed was to be seen as just another over-promising, under-delivering car supermarket.

4 Consulting activity

The Car People had a restricted budget, but ambitious growth plans. After initial consultation we arrived at the following marketing objectives:

  • Improve customer loyalty amongst existing customers to ensure re-purchase and recommendation
  • Grow awareness and appreciation amongst a defined target audience
  • Build prominence within the consideration set of car retailers
  • Improve customer footfall to outlets
  • Ensure the brand proposition is reflected and reinforced by customer experience

4.1 Knowledge before assumption
We knew that we needed to understand the business completely before drawing any conclusions or making any recommendations. The research programme we undertook analysed the business from a 360 degree perspective. The consulting team interviewed existing, prospective and lapsed customers to understand their needs, perceptions and attitudes in relation to the car-buying experience. Mystery shopping, conducted in the main outlets, enabled the team to walk in the shoes of the customer and experience the car-buying process firsthand.

Desk research was conducted to identify market dynamics and understand the macro consumer, which could influence the growth prospects at The Car People. Finally, we analysed the historical performance, reviewed customer data and interviewed staff and the senior team about their perceptions and aspirations.

4.2 Built a consumer driven strategy

The research phase demonstrated clear opportunities for The Car People to challenge the existing codes of the car retail sector and create a differentiated, compelling brand positioning. Our research showed that while decision making in car purchase was traditionally viewed as a male domain, the final decision makers were in fact women in 70% of cases. In car retail, this audience had been largely ignored by the sector and we saw a clear opportunity to directly target and appeal to this demographic. Qualitative research showed that women were disenfranchised by the aggressive sales techniques of retailers and were instead motivated by a relationship built upon mutual respect and trust.

Furthermore, client data analysis demonstrated the success of the business at converting sales once customers visited the premises. Our research showed that being part of the customer consideration set, whether purchase was imminent or not, was incredibly valuable to The Car People.

Our solution
The research validated the hassle-free, honest approach The Car People had sought to adopt throughout the organisation. The creative and strategic teams at Propaganda developed a differentiated brand proposition to bring the brand to life and create empathy with its core female target audience. The proposition focussed on forging an open and trusting relationship with female decision makers while always maintaining accessibility and relevance to men. The subsequent strategy ensured that the brand story translated to every part of the buying experience.

We then developed an integrated marketing communications strategy that ensured the target audience were hit with the right messages, at the right time, with the right frequency. The customer communications campaign was designed to deliver maximum impact during the pre, mid and post sales periods and Propaganda recommended the use of multiple media channels, including web, DM, TV and radio, to spread the brand story and associated benefits. The brand tone was carried through to the in-store environment with straight-talking, friendly POS materials that guided the customer in their decision making, without being pushy or intrusive.

4.3 Change the rules of communication, before someone changes them for you
The research demonstrated how disenfranchised car buying customers were with most car retailers. The ‘deal-driven’ approach was viewed as pushy, aggressive and inappropriate. Moreover, this approach did not fit with the friendly and approachable personality of The Car People and the long-term relationships they sought to build.

Our solution
The messages throughout the marketing communication programme were written to challenge the industry norms and give The Car People a distinctive and engaging personality that customers could relate to. We defined a clearer female tone of voice for the brand that created relevant differentiation from competitors. Furthermore, the communication avoided the ‘deal of the day’ approach and concentrated on the distinctive approach of the team and added benefits of buying from The Car People, focussing on the hassle-free experience.

4.4 Building the brand from the inside, out
We knew that an external brand communication programme, regardless of its strength, would not achieve the required business results unless it was adopted and endorsed by the entire internal team. We understood that customer expectations could be damaged by just one miscommunication by a member of staff. We also had seen firsthand the passion and commitment the internal team had for The Car People and we needed to ensure that this continued through to the new brand proposition.

Our solution
From the earliest stages of the research findings, through to the design and implementation of the brand communication, the internal teams were informed and involved. We held a series of brand workshops and discussion groups with every member of staff in the business, in all areas and at all levels of seniority. Following the launch of the brand programme there have been ongoing brand forums amongst the staff across the sites to ensure the brand promise is delivered consistently and continuously.

4.6 One hit doesn’t work
The Car People understood the commercial value of building long-term customer relationships. The Propaganda data analysis reinforced the importance and opportunities that could be exploited simply by retaining existing customers and building long-term relationships with new customers. We knew this couldn’t be done simply by communicating with customers once, or by using the same media over and over.

Our solution
We designed and implemented a customer loyalty programme that used customer data profiling to build relevant and targeted messages based on customer history. Customers were contacted at appropriate intervals to remind them of The Car People experience and encourage them to recommend the brand to friends and family. Moreover, for new customers, the brand campaign has evolved to extend the brand story to further engage prospective customers with The Car People experience.

4.7 Timescales
The research phase began in February 2006, with strategic planning commencing in May 2006. The brand programme was launched externally in August 2006.

4.8 People involved
The programme was led by a senior consultant, supported by researchers, strategists and creatives. During the strategic development stage the senior team at Propaganda had daily dialogue with the board at The Car People to ensure challenge, build and buy-in was ‘live’ and relevant.

During the implementation and creative development stages a broader project team was involved, working with the client at all levels to ensure smooth implementation.

5 Success factors and challenges

• The key challenges focussed upon the validation of a positioning that challenged strong industry orthodoxies and gained client conviction to stand behind it. The brand proposition required The Car People to approach customers differently from the norm.
• Since brand launch, The Car People’s growth has outstripped predictions and outperformed the market. Final quarter sales for 2006 improved 17% on average compared with the previous year and they have exceeded an annual turnover of £100m.
• In the months following the brand launch, new customer visits increased by an average of 22%. Spontaneous awareness (independent research) demonstrated improvements from 8% to 26%.
• Personal recommendation now accounts for 38% of sales (from 25%) with 99% of customers claiming they would buy from The Car People again.
• Repeat sales from existing customers have grown from 17% to 25%.
• Industry journal What Car? ranked The Car People as number 2 for performance (from number 9 the previous year).

As for Propaganda:
• The relationship with The Car People has demonstrated how important existing internal knowledge and experience is. We knew that the internal audience held a very strong conviction in their difference before the involvement of Propaganda. While there might be a temptation to adopt an entirely new strategy, we believed it was important to build upon the existing success of the business while validating (or challenging) it from a position of knowledge and not assumption.

6 The client/consultant relationship

From the outset, the relationship between The Car People and Propaganda has been open, challenging and collaborative. The combined team arrived at a set of clear and tangible objectives at the earliest stages of the programme. While these evolved over time, the regular dialogue between client and agency built extremely strong foundations to ensure success.

“Since their earliest engagement, we have worked side by side with Propaganda. They have challenged our thinking but always respected our success. They have helped tap into the psyche of our customer, current and future, to build profitable long-term relationships that offer us competitive advantage. We are proud of the brand we have built together and look forward to growing our business even further with the assistance of Propaganda”

Jonathan Allbones, Sales & Marketing Director

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