What it takes to turnaround an iconic Australian brand

GM Holden executive marketing chief shares the work-in-progress brand transformation being undertaken during CMO Momentum Sydney

Kristian Aquilina at CMO Momentum Sydney 2019
Kristian Aquilina at CMO Momentum Sydney 2019

Defining a brand strategy is arguably the easy bit when you’re trying to turn a brand around; it’s the ability to drive such a strategy through everything you do where CMOs truly earn their keep.

That’s the view of Holden executive general manager of marketing, Kristian Aquilina, who took the stage at the recent CMO Momentum Sydney story to share the work-in-progress story of a once-dominant, 160-year old Australian brand looking to find relevance in a new consumer era.

The Holden brand has certainly experienced hefty commercial challenges in recent years, spiked by its decision to cease manufacturing cars in the Australian market and drop its iconic Commodore brand. The last Commodore rolled off a local production line in 2017, 69 years after first being introduced as the perfect Australian family car engineered to suit local driving conditions and terrain.

“By then, we’d started work to pivot the organisation to a broader suite of products, rather than the age-old Commodore, and move to being a full importer of cars manufactured from plants all over the world, just like every competitor in this country,” Aquilina told attendees. “We were ready to move on. But clearly our customers were not.”

Aquilina noted just a few examples of the negative commentary Holden has been subjected to on social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook in recent years. Importantly, most has come from previously passionate and loyal Holden brand advocates.

“When you’re bind a brand so strongly to its Australian manufactured origins, the big reaction from customers and car buyers was that we weren’t Australian anymore. Therefore they were not interested in a brand they were once interested in,” he said.  

Four main things came up as Holden tried to understand the underlying drivers of negative sentiment. The big one was customers felt abandoned. A contributing reason was more than 70 per cent of the market had swung towards SUV vehicles, rather than the traditional sedan family car represented by the Holden Commodore.

“People couldn’t detach our brand from Commodore, the top selling car for years and years,” Aquilina said.  

Another reason for negative sentiment was a perception of poor quality product as a result of shifting away from local production. A third was the way Holden had been marketing its cars, which left many consumers believing the brand had moved away from its family origins. In so doing, the brand lost its connection to the Aussie family.

“Then there was the aspiration element: The Holden brand wasn’t perceived as cool, but rather as dad or granddad’s car,” Aquilina said.

Nevertheless, there were silver linings from the “sobering” research. “For a lot of people, there is still admiration for the Holden brand, and very high awareness, which, in a car market 65-brands strong, is important,” Aquilina said.  

“Once people get to know the products, and take the time, they are cracking cars in the segments they compete. Independently rated, the cars are the most competitive, highest quality, best priced and offering better customer service than ever before. But we still need to overcome the brand issues.”

For Aquilina, the most important finding from the research was actually how people associated Holden with distinctly Australian cultural attributes. Notably, these are   pioneering spirit, honestly, a down to earth and grounded nature, straight-talking and mateship.

“It’s a brand that has your back,” he said. “That gives us a little bit of a code for how we shape the strategy for this brand into the future.”  

In complement to this, it’s vital Holden is clear on who target customers are, Aquilina continued.

“We cannot all of a sudden – and I think we need to admit to where we’ve made mistakes before – position a brand like Holden into something more elite or stylish than it can pull off,” he said. “We have to understand our traditional base and gradually progress it over time, rather than trying to be someone we’re not. That’s inauthentic.”  

Holden’s resulting brand strategy takes its cues from these familiar roots and is a modernisation of what Holden is famous for, Aquilina said. Where possible, it’s also designed to diminish things holding the brand back.

“What makes us different? It’s those Australian roots, and authentic cultural values – that becomes our differentiator,” Aquilina said. “To live up to it, one thing we can stand for in the eyes of the automotive buyer is a message of confidence, delivered with a personality that’s always very Australian.”  

Read more: CMO interview: Writing the rulebook for Holden's brand turnaround

Changing brand thinking

Defining a brand strategy is arguably the easy bit; the ability to drive a brand strategy through everything you do is where a CMO earns their keep, Aquilina said.

“As a car company, that was born 160 years ago, we’ve effectively been an engineering company. We’re now pivoting quickly to being a brand-led organisation. It takes a fair bit of change and leadership to get there,” he said.

“It’s everyone of influence rallying together, from the CEO to the worker bees. They have to believe in what we do, how we articulate the brand strategy and be able to elevator pitch it to anyone else they come across. And it shapes everything coming across the boardroom table, from products we choose to important, to customer service design, the level of investment in customising products locally to make them relevant, employee engagement plans and ways we communicate.”

Transforming the organisation along and getting buy-in from the national franchise dealer network is a multi-year challenge for Aquilina and the team. But he stressed the gusto behind it.

You can’t do everything overnight, however, and Holden is at the start of a five, 10 or longer journey. What’s more, it can take seven years from conception to market launch, a long lead time for products to live up to Holden’s modern brand strategy.

“The brand strategy was conceived knowing the hardware we have at our disposal, so these things are not in isolation from each other,” Aquilina said.  

Meantime, it’s the marketing department being asked to provide quick wins in the way brands communicate and offer services around products to augment the cars themselves, he said. So to make a start, Holden has changed the way it communicates. A big shift has been away from the always-on, price promotion-led, shouting retail-led environment.

“These 30-60 day campaigns were pretty much all the exposure people had to Holden advertising for several years, to a point where no one knew what we stood for,” Aquilina said.

Starting 2019, Holden has adopted a consistent approach to marketing product, aimed at creating desirability in the cars and name-plate awareness.

“This is so people coming into the market recognise our brand. There has been a change in consumer behaviour around the way people shop for cars, which often now starts with the name-plate brand, and with our newer products, we’re barely there at the start, ”Aquilina said.  

In addition, Holden has dialled up personality in brand communication to embody confidence and employ humour. It’s brought this approach to the big challenges online, too.

“Online is a place we cannot ignore – it’s the place people inform their opinions of your brand,” Aquilina commented. “With those people giving Holden a hard time, we responded using that same personality and attitude we crafted for our new brand strategy, including the use of humour and charm.

“This brought into the foray our supporters and fans, who felt more confident about coming into social media conversations again.”

Holden has also extended this personality into advertising, kicking off with the new Acadia SUV campaign launched in late 2018.

“We had to tackle the question of product relevance. We were known for these Commodore that have been rusted onto the brand for so many years, but the world has gone all SUV on us,” Aquilina said. “We needed to establish our range of SUVs and that’s starting to show some green shoots: People coming into that SUV market for their first time are now thinking Holden among the others.”

Now it’s about further building on Holden’s confidence positioning. One way has been by introducing a five-year warranty no matter how far people drive to highlight how Holden is backing its products, Aquilina said. Another new program this year guarantees the minimum future value of the car and trade-in value upfront.

“Even in marketing and communications, we need a rallying point to bring it together and a creative expression binding it all that helps us continue with a consistent story,” Aquilina said. “It also becomes a rallying point internally for sales and service staff nationally.”

The resulting statement for Holden is ‘you got this’, something again derived from customer feedback.

“Think about a time when you have been encouraged by someone who has got your back; or you need to rally a team around a target – it’s all about you got this. It’s a powerful statement of confidence that Holden has your back,” he said.

Holden is harnessing the statement in a raft of new campaigns for multiple products including the Colorado and Acadia, targeting male and female drivers. It’s not only designed to improve brand reach and desirability, but help with price promotion activity. The campaigns often also take advantage of the iconic 1980s song, ‘I need a hero’.

Aquilina admitted it’s still very early days for Holden, but was encouraged by results so far and the commitment behind turning the brand around.

“Here’s to us saying in five or 10 years’ time that we’ve definitely got this,” he added.

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