CMO interview: Writing the rulebook for Holden's brand turnaround
- 05 December, 2018 07:14
Holden’s Kristian Aquilina is the first to admit the situation he finds himself in as brand promoter isn’t one you’ll find in a marketing textbook.
The executive director of marketing arrived back in Australia in April, tasked with helping rejuvenate the A/NZ GM Holden brand and rebuilding its market might.
It’s no small feat. Holden’s reputation suffered a hefty blow after closing down car manufacturing in the local market last October, 69 years after rolling the first vehicle off its production line. By March, the automotive producer was posting its lowest sales and smallest market share since 1948, even as industry figures suggested the new-car market surged forward in the early months of 2018.
Aquilina, who was managing director of GM Holden’s and Isuzu New Zealand operations prior to crossing the Tasman, and who boasts 20 years’ experience in the General Motors (GM) business across sales, marketing, product management and government relations, says building internal faith has been a vital first step in a robust long-term brand turnaround strategy.
“We’re setting ourselves up for a turnaround in brand sentiment and performance from a sales perspective. Our MD has stressed awareness, contribution and I’ll add desirability as important outcomes of the work we are trying to do,” Aquilina tells CMO.
“What became apparent quickly in the situation we are in… was the need to start with people and culture. We needed to rebuild confidence and a belief in what we were doing, and why we are here.”
It was also clear employees and partners were looking to marketing for support and to spearhead understanding internally of where the brand is going and what Holden wants to achieve, Aquilina says.
“This is even without having all the answers. Just that fact it can be better is what people were looking for,” he says. “That was important to do with the entire dealer network and their staff, 1000s of people, who were looking to marketing to lead the rejuvenation.
“That’s hard work and it’s still underway. It won’t be resolved overnight because you need to start achieving a few things and fulfilling what you’re saying you are going to do for the belief to take hold.”
One of these early things Aquilina hopes will restore brand faith is the launch of the new Acadia SUV. Kicking off in November, the new ‘Arrives’ above-the-line campaign is a significant initiative aimed at building Holden’s brand awareness and consideration in the larger SUV category.
Aquilina describes the plan for Acadia as “the inverse of your optimal marketing and brand strategy planning”. It’s also been launched ahead of nailing down the broader brand strategy for Holden going forward.
A fair amount of intuition and judgment therefore had to go into the mix to get the campaign out in market, Aquilina says, along with insight into what’s worked and not worked in the past. “We have the understanding of the brand, the culture in which it operates, and there’s been a lot of input from stakeholders associated with brand, plus a bit of test and learn along the way,” he says.
“So we were able to quickly come up with a campaign that brings out the best of the car. We’ve just enhanced the car’s natural personality and attitude and brought that to life in the way we communicate about it.”
A range of nuances had to be considered. For instance, the Acadia is Holden’s first genuine entry into the large seven-seater SUV.
“Holden is famous for its dominance in passenger cars. Now we’re coming into this car launch as a challenger in what has very quickly become the dominant segment, displacing the passenger segment that’s been so key to our history,”Aquilina explains.
And of course the launch had more weight in terms of cultural importance. “I’d love it if it was as simple as a new nameplate and product people haven’t seen – then we’d just have to come up with some way of growing awareness,” he says.
“We’re at an interesting point in Holden’s history, and it’s got to quickly establish us as a challenger in the SUV segment. But we’re also in the situation where sales and brand health have taken a hit and that needs work. You can’t ignore the broader context when entering into a campaign like this.”
A key decision was to build momentum well ahead of the first Acadia car arriving locally by getting hold of 180 pre-production cars, enough for nearly one per dealership nationally.
“That gave us reasons for people to come ahead of the mainstream launch to sample the new product and satisfy any curiosity we could create in the lead-up,”Aquilina says.
Bringing franchises and dealer into the tent early on in developing the launch strategy, the tonality of the campaign, putting ideas on the board, and testing ideas was also vital and not something Holden has been known for before.
“Getting the Acadia product and campaign out helps to speak to where Holden is heading and has been an important component of restoring confidence and belief in what this brand is capable of,” he adds.
Up next: The fresh approach to social helping Holden build brand, internal restructuring, plus the long-term game plan
Another pillar in Aquilina’s marketing plan has been a proactive social strategy. As he points out, social channels are “a forum for very passionate folks with strong opinions on Holden either venting their spleen or having a pronounced point of view”.
“At first, you fear to participate in that space and attract negative sentiment. But we looked at how to utilise this attitude we are developing around the brand overall to tackle this completely differently,” he says.
“It’s been one of the most interesting challenges in my career. In this age of social media, where there’s no respect for a brand that doesn’t participate and turn on comments, how do you do that when language and sentiment towards your brand in the last 18-24 months has been vitriolic and negative?”
The first step was recognising there’s no middle ground on the Holden brand: People are either going to give the brand a one out of 10, or a 10 out of 10.
“Sales staff through to people associated with our brand nationally were quite affected by the negative sentiment, and that negative was winning over. It was at the point where my team and dealers were fearful of posting what is otherwise positive, good news stories around the brand,” he says. “We had this double impact of negativity leading, then withholding anything positive for fear it attracts more negativity.
“So we looked afresh, starting with personality of the brand and defining that character we wanted to be associated with. It’s going to flow through everything we do in the future.”
This personality harkens back to Holden’s brand approach, which has been distinctly Australian, exudes confidence, and uses humour to be charming and charismatic, Aquilina says.
“Our theory was our supporters will come in behind us if we can be the vanguard with well-placed humour that diffuses the negativity and turns it around by being plucky,” he says. “We started doing that and have seen an amazing reaction. What we discovered is that at the heart of the most negative comments is a positive. When you turn around and use humour to respond and diffuse the comment, those individuals come back saying ‘that’s why I love Holden’. It turned out our harshest critics were our biggest and most passionate fans.
“That shows how important it was to tackle social ahead of many other areas in addressing sentiment around the Holden brand, and laying down the groundwork for the arrival of Acadia.”
Simultaneously, Aquilina has been bringing in new disciplines and processes to assemble a strong A/NZ marketing leadership team internally. It’s a mix of old and new, with staff coming in from marketing across other parts of the GM business, from New Zealand, and existing local employees. Key was making sure the right talent was in the right spots.
“Within 15 days, we’d restructured marketing across both countries, which was a pretty significant change, including for myself. There has been some fine-tuning since, but without knowing exactly how we were going to get to where we needed to be, we had to set up the way I thought gave us the best chances of success at that point in time,”Aquilina explains.
“We wanted people who truly understood the brand and culture in which we operate to help with its rejuvenation.”
Complementing this was an emphasis on modernising the marketing department, and setting up the right digital and CRM teams.
“In terms of talent identification, we had a lot of work on making it a seamless integration between what we traditionally do, and where we need to move in terms of online, social, and direct customer interaction,” Aquilina says. “And that was before talking about media buying and agency support. We had to just get our team organised.”
Long-term brand strategy
Work still continues on Holden’s wider brand definition. But with cars to sell today and tomorrow, the team has needed to push ahead.
“Being pragmatic about it, we are going to go with a character and personality that will carries this for a while until we sort out the true brand definition of Holden. That’s about the way we want to be perceived consistently and over time,” Aquilina says.
“That’s become a pretty good substitute while we get our house in order. It’s allowed us to continue on and plough ahead in a way that’s been a positive. Having the right people with intuition on that was therefore so important. And the Acadia campaign embodies that.”
The next priority for Aquilina is better presenting the Holden brand in the digital space. “You can’t just think about your own brand presence, we have the whole dealer network, partners, sales and consumer journey which includes third-parties you don’t have full control over,” he points out.
“Across our digital ecosystem, we need to bring together the pieces that represent Holden as a brand and how they present to customers and their journey.”
The ambition is to get in front of shoppers at the right part of the journey and as they move from a Holden to dealers’ experience.
“It’s tempered by the amount we can invest in IT, user design, CX and the assets we have available through GM,” Aquilina admits. “It’s about how can we prioritise to give us the best chance of success. So firstly, we’re focused on tier-three sales and their digital presence.
“There are 180-odd dealer websites people are visiting and there’s a lot going on with the shopping journey before making an inquiry or shopping action. We wanted to start at the point of most importance in terms of monetising our digital presence. We have invested in a new platform since I joined, and make sure customers can interact with us using their mobile devices, that we’re optimising our presence in third-party sites, Google rankings, and so on.
“There are some interesting projects now underway to bring together what we do in the CRM space and digital.”
With bigger questions around the Holden brand still to be addressed, Aquilina recognises it’s early days and it’ll be a long haul. “We have big objectives, but everyone is pretty well aware of where Holden’s challenges lie and it needs to be reflected in the way we prioritise and assign resources, and which issues we tackle and in what sequence.
“Acadia launch was the start of us challenging in a new perceived new space for Holden.”
More widely, rebuilding the brand will take awareness and appeal, as well as credibility – something Aquilina hopes another sub-brand, Colorado, and its commercial vehicles, will help achieve.
“We’re in unchartered waters, so you have to keep testing and learning,” he concludes. I I’m confident we will turn this around as it’s a strong brand. There is a lot of love for it.”
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