Honda UK chief Martin Moll on boosting lacklustre sales
Honda UK's marketing manager has come through a tsunami-affected year and is focused on revitalising the brand on these shores
It is impossible to ignore the globalised economy when continent-crossing planes scream overhead every few minutes.
That is, however, the lot of workers at the Honda Institute, a centre for the training of the car manufacturer's UK staff. Located a mere stone's throw from Heathrow's Terminal 5 - pretty much on the runway, as it goes - British Airways flights between Tokyo and London pass overhead daily.
Yet the local Honda team, including UK marketing director Martin Moll, was dramatically cut off from the brand's Japanese headquarters until recently.
As well as combating the tough economic situation in Western Europe, Moll and his colleagues were forced to cope with a succession of devastating natural disasters last year, including the tsunami in Japan and flooding in Thailand.
The fallout prevented the production and delivery of all-important parts, and the launch of the latest version of Honda's bestselling Civic was put back as a result.
Yet, to speak to the 43-year-old marketer, one would have thought the situation was little more than an irritation.
Perhaps bolstered by a couple of years spent leading Honda's UK PR team, Moll's default demeanour is upbeat. He not only answers questions with confidence, but relishes going into details of his marketing philosophy, where many would rather leave us guessing.
'I've loved it,' says the 17-year Honda veteran, smiling broadly. 'If you can operate in an environment where you've got a challenge getting hold of the product, let alone the economy, exchange rate and pressure on budget, then you know you're earning your crust. We've focused very clearly on a strategic direction and what we hope to achieve, and we're becoming far more ruthless in our measurement of our success.'
If only the wider situation were quite so cheery. In 2011, the Japanese marque suffered a 20% year-on-year drop in UK new car sales, according to the SMMT, with market share falling to 2.6%, placing it behind Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai and Kia. Although this was partly caused by a gap between model launches, as well as the aforementioned supply issues, Moll admits it is a priority to double annual new vehicle sales to 100,000 and climb back up to eighth in the list of the UK's biggest-selling marques.
Modest market share
Comparing the critical acclaim of Honda's TV ads in the past decade, including 'Cog' and 'Impossible Dream', with its relatively modest market share, a disparity appears. To tackle this issue, in 2010 Moll became the first UK marketer to control all aspects of Honda's business, including passenger cars, motorbikes, lawnmowers and marine vehicle engines, having taken over from Ian Armstrong, who had departed for a European role with the manufacturer.
Different Honda products appeal to vastly different consumers: its mopeds are aimed at teenagers, while passenger cars tend to be owned by those aged about 60. Moll claims that a triumvirate of brand qualities - 'durability, reliability, and quality' - unite all Honda products, but admits the brand must do more to tug on the heart-strings.
'We know quality is why people are drawn to us, but it is not emotional; that is more of a hygiene factor,' he says. 'We need to build up other virtues, including the quality of our communication, from the paper we print on to the language we use - the kind of flair that will move us away from the mass market.'
At a time when automotive brands are easy to pigeon-hole, due largely to the efforts of marketers to achieve brand clarity, Moll is also supportive of the decision not to align Honda with any specific area of innovation, such as green technology or sports-car prowess.
Instead, he claims its more wide-ranging approach to flagship innovation, such as its ASIMO humanoid robot and its solar-cell-powered, hydrogen-refuelling Home Energy Station, will attract those customers seeking engineering excellence.
Unlike rival Japanese marque Nissan, Moll is also sceptical about playing upon any British 'credentials', despite the high volume of manufacturing carried out at its plant in Swindon, Wiltshire.
'We don't get hung up on it,' he says. 'It's important for people to see that we are very supportive of the UK, but to fixate on the Britishness of it can sometimes put people off. And actually some people like the fact that you are Japanese, with the association with fine engineering. We don't want to shy away from our roots.'
Honda's human face
Instead, Moll's marketing plans for Honda appear to have been shaped by a recent fact-finding trip to the US, the brand's biggest global market. He excitedly relates a story about a customer who trimmed Honda's 'H' logo into his lawn, before sending the image to its social-media team. They responded by digging up the company's lawn and, using flowers, created a message of thanks - setting off a chain of tributes involving special haircuts and even tattoos.
'It was playful stuff showing the human side of the brand, and that is very important for us; we don't want to be a cold, engineered, distant brand,' he says. 'It's not necessarily about big ideas. Some brands do it fantastically - Adam & Eve's work for John Lewis is beautiful - but sometimes it can be about doing the small things well.'
This attention to detail lies at the heart of Moll's plans for Honda's marketing strategy, outlined in a recently completed three-year plan. In his eyes, the key to attracting and, in particular, retaining customers is to significantly bolster the level of personalised service and marketing beyond anything in the market.
To begin with, he has kicked off a review of the brand's CRM operation, currently handled by agency Crayon. This is intended to make messages more relevant to customers. 'I think the standard CRM journey in any sector is fairly flawed,' says Moll. 'We define the message, usually sales or aftersales-related, at a time that suits us, based on our business needs, in a manner that is cost-effective for us - not at all taking into account what matters for the customer. Even with supermarkets, I might get vouchers, but I never feel a sense of individuality.'
Yet, rather than merely targeting passive consumers, Moll is keen for customers to want to take the initiative and engage with Honda on a daily or weekly basis. To that end, the brand is in the early stages of developing a personalised digital platform, referred to internally by monikers such as 'My Honda' and 'Honda World'. The platform, which remains in the research stage, would bring what Moll describes as a '24/7, 365 attitude' to customer service.
'I bank with First Direct,' he explains. 'That I can ring up at 3am and move money around, though I never will, is part of the reason I'm with them. That has value for me. Because the service is good and courteous, it means I don't care I don't get the best rates in the market. For Honda, there is a much more sophisticated way we can operate. If I have a serious problem at 7pm, I have to almost always wait for the manufacturer to open. If we are serious about customer service, we need someone ready to help.'
Moll depicts a system by which customers would be able to 'click one button' to access personal Honda ownership information and be able to request instant support. Rather than rolling out a single promotion, the marketer envisages '5000 individually tuned campaigns' running at any time. He also contends that, with sufficient data, much could be gained from offering customers gifts to suit their lifestyles, such as theatre tickets.
'I want to make a membership to the Honda club so compelling that you never want to leave,' says Moll.
One would not expect such reformist zeal from someone who has spent nearly two decades with the brand. Yet Moll appears determined to arrest the slow decline in Honda's performance in the UK, and propel it back into the big league. Any success will likely depend on the marketer's ability to get his personalisation message to take off across the business, just like the aeroplanes that continue to roar overhead.
THREE CHALLENGES FACING MOLL
- Double Honda's UK new car sales in three years, and regain a top-10 spot in the UK rankings.
- Establish greater clarity around the brand, making up lost ground on Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota.
- Develop a personalised digital marketing strategy, without compromising the tradition of the high quality of its above-the-line work.
UK press and PR manager, Honda UK (2001-2003)
Manager, car sales operations, Honda UK (2003-2006)
Head of marketing, power division, Honda UK (2006-2010)
Head of marketing, Honda UK (April 2010-present)
Lives Oxfordshire, 'well, just inside the border near Warwickshire'.
Hobbies Cycling, 'especially mountain biking' and golf.
Favourite car 'The Honda NSX. Outside Honda, I'd have to say Range Rover.'
Favourite holiday destination 'Thailand, I absolutely love it.'
Civic launch campaign: 'Great unknown'
Honda prepared a war chest of £28m to promote the launch of the latest version of its all-important Civic model across Europe in January.
The 'Great unknown' campaign focused on a 'spark of inspiration' at a Honda factory, as it passed through adventures, before revealing the latest Civic. The TV ad again featured a voiceover by US author Garrison Keillor, while Honda also invested in print, outdoor and digital activity.
A Civic smartphone app, designed by Nexus/H, allowed potential buyers to view the model from all angles; it also incorporated a 'wind tunnel' feature, enabling consumers to use the smartphone mic to test some of the key aerodynamic and handling characteristics of the car.
20% Year-on-year fall in Honda's UK new car sales
2.6% Honda's UK market share, down from 3.75% in 2009
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk
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