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[column] Marketing and the car industry switch in harmony

For years, the Opel Kadett was the best-selling car in our country. With great distance to number two, this model led the sales lists. The introduction of a new Kadett was therefore just about our national car exchange. A party every time. In the Opel showroom, that is. The brand could not have wished for a bigger event at the time and the Germans who have now been annexed by the PSA French have benefited from this for about 35 years. At its peak, 88,000 Opels were sold per year in our country. For comparison: a car brand is already happy in 2020 when it reaches half. For more than three decades, Opel was the best-selling car manufacturer in the Netherlands. To celebrate that now unthinkable success, the necessary PR parties have been organized. Because in addition to Kadett news, Opel also liked to share the success story of being the dominant market leader at the time. Result as publicity and it was impossible.

No successor

In 2020, Opel is still a leading player in the market, but the huge market share and the impressive lead have had to let the Rüsselheimers go. Despite the potential of the current models, because they can still compete well. As a symbol of market leadership, the Kadett nowadays has to do without a successor. No longer does one model have the exclusive right to be an absolute top seller for many years. No longer is one car the only real outlier in the market. The logical question arises whether Opel has abandoned marketing or whether car marketing itself has erased the hegemony of a strong approach. In any case, the Big Event is no longer a national car change. A valid question of “why” begs for an answer. If you look closely at the car market developments of the last decades. Just a Kadett is no longer (crazy) enough to achieve success these days and it seems that marketing has played an important role in this. After all, the rules of marketing have changed significantly during the same period.

Icon

The Opel Kadett has been the icon of the market for many years. Whole series were produced and every time Opel managed to become the market leader. The square B-Kadett at the beginning of the seventies. The C-Kadett that later also came as a three-door Coupé, often in bright yellow and with the indication “City” on the sides. The dashboard of this yellow poison dart frog, however, remained moody black. After all, solidity was paramount and it shouldn’t get too exciting. After the C-Kadett, of course, came the D version. Bigger, more modern and the “D” looked very solid and robust in the early 1980s. The model had both a three-door and five-door version. Later the station wagon (Caravan in Opel jargon) was added.

The Cadets were all fine vehicles for the common man. Reliable, simple but sufficiently functional for large groups of Dutch people

The residential areas in the suburbs – Zoetermeer and Almere were in the pipeline – were therefore abundantly filled with them. Kadett stood for functional and correct. For do-it-just-then-you-do-crazy-enough. The Kadett dashboard was also always black, the engine block usually a 1.2S, the seats strong but hard and the windows you had to open for decades with an inky black window crank. And that the moment you could already order a little Peugeot 305 or Renault 9 with automatic windows and power steering, and had seats in beautiful light pastel shades. The French had electric trinkets like usp and the Scottish plaid trim that you could get in the Citroën GSA, for example, made life in this voitures much sunnier than existence in the hard blackness of the Kadett.

Fashion conscious

Still, the Kadett won. Even on all sales fronts and also with great distance. Despite the fuss of the French and Italian brands, it was at that time a conscious choice for many car buyers to drive the solid Opel Kadett and leave the Mediterranean luxury for what it was. De Kadett stood for security. Solid security. The device worked fine, was perhaps a bit boring in terms of design, but you could never really do anything wrong when you drove up. A strong example of Opel. In the seventies, it must have been our Calvinistic society, that whole groups of consumers were genuinely satisfied with such a solid and functional car. No-nonsense and just good build quality. And if one series Kadett went, another model would follow, it was time for the national car change again and the Opel dealer was now making a generous return. After Kadett B came C, after C followed D. Until suddenly a much more hip successor appeared on the scene.

At the end of 1984, Opel made its first concession in that functional Kadett ritual. The E-Kadett, which was introduced at the end of that year, turned out to have received a large portion of extra design.

Round, streamlined, available as a sporty GT and later as an ultra-fast GSi. In the landscape of square cars, this model Kadett stood out in a positive way. The Kadett had suddenly become fashion-conscious, followed the latest trends in the then-worshiped wind tunnel design and was now dressed with hip hubcaps and fast door strips. It didn’t make much difference to sales. The Kadett became again en masse exchanged for the latest variant and also topped the sales lists in its E specifications for years. The Netherlands went berserk and 1987 plus 1988 were unprecedented highlights in terms of sales volumes. And yet the modernization that entered the E-Kadett in late 1984 was already the announcement of other times. At Opel, but also throughout the car country.

Revolution

Times when car marketers and designers were increasingly looking for more appearance and more pronounced trends. A period in which a car no longer had to be primarily functional, but in which brands started a search for voluptuous lines and beautiful colors. Now that the Kadett had set a new standard at the end of 1984, it was also important for other manufacturers to pay more attention to design and marketing. The market leader was the reference, it must have been due to its plastic wheel covers.

In any case, putting a new car on the market from that moment on requires a bigger step from the brands. In appearance, image, technology and especially in terms of marketing. After all, the “round” Kadett is not only the new standard, but also the sales ambition of the other brands. It is no longer enough to create a straightforward model. No… it is important to process the customer with marketing in such a way that he or she can take a significant step in appearance with every new model. Where “just” has provided confirmation for years, the same concept suddenly causes disappointment with customers from the mid-1980s.

In any case, putting a new car on the market from that moment on requires a bigger step from the brands. In appearance, image, technology and especially in terms of marketing

With frivolous campaigns, brands from the E-Kadett period prepare consumers for more futuristic models. The emotion wins more from the function year after year. This change in thinking results in (for then) trendy cars such as the Fiat Tipo (with digital instruments), the Opel Omega (best CW fairing value), the Citroën XM (time ahead) or Alfa 164 (what a difference with the 75). But also think, for example, of the Honda Civic, also quite daringly designed for its time, especially as a Shuttle. In the mid-1980s, a period began when brands switched from fairly anonymous models to more dressed-up cars. Also begins the period when for the first time truly revolutionary body styles are added to the traditional line-up. Manufacturers dare to propose new concepts such as the MPV and smart marketing tricks allow the public to get used to the exuberant news that comes soon. And with those changes in the model range, the car time for which the Opel Kadett symbolized suddenly becomes boring and misunderstood.

Never invented it yourself

We all know by now what the above ‘change’ has led to. The pace of development in the automotive industry has been unprecedented since the end of the D-Kadett and its peers. Where a car could only be in the price lists for 8 to 10 years in the 1970s, it is now a model cycle of two years of ‘flames’ in sales, then upgrading for two years with nice bells and whistles including a subtle facelift and then afterwards, for a maximum of one and a half years, with big discounts. Car life no longer consists of more and the last phase of dropping off usually takes place with considerable support from the dealers, so that they can sell the latest models with attractive promotions. And even then it is often difficult.

After five and a half years it is usually time for a new model and with the speed with which the marketers in the industry are working, a new niche has increasingly been invented. An intermediate form that is pushed into the market with a nice PR offensive aimed at car journalists and influencers, and then brought to the attention of the consumer with a 360 degree media offensive. This creates the image on every media channel of the customer that he or she is missing something big as soon as it is not possible to quickly switch to the latest trend. A nice stimulus for sales. It is precisely this way of “marketing” that has brought us the current SUVs, the Coupé SUVs, the lifestyle station wagons, the shooting brakes, lots of cheerful roadster-like models and some SUV convertibles. Models that we would never have come up with ourselves without marketing. After all, they are often not that handy.

Form over function

The smooth interaction between marketers and designers also has a downside. Dull yet well-functioning body styles such as the Kadett of yesteryear have taken a hit in the sales numbers. An Astra or Mégane is nowhere near the numbers that the Kadett recorded in the mid-1980s. Beautiful sedans such as the Alfa 164, the Audi A4, the Peugeot 607, the Lancia Thesis or Kappa, the Volkswagen Jetta or Toyota Camry to name but a few random examples are either disappeared from the market or sell in such limited numbers that almost no one can still see driving around. Other “regular” models are also having a hard time, because the marketing offensive to the potential buyers is now working fine and that is why they are also switching to some colorful B-segment SUV pushed by cross-media campaigns. After all, form is more important in our time and with trendy option packages in even nicer colors, the crossovers of the market have an appeal like a magnet. End of hatchback with three doors, end of black dashboard and end of black fabric on the seats.

Thanks to the marketing, we are now going en masse for trendy and colorful transport, bad luck for us if the roofline for the looks is pinched too far down and the new car actually turns out not to be so useful at all.

Recurring car surprise

The marketing of the car brands in the past 35 years has thus increasingly fragmented the car landscape. Models that did not exist were created and we as consumers started to like them too. There is often a lot of shout about car marketing, but when you look back to the old times from now on, it is actually very clever how the industry keeps ‘talking’ people into a new concept and how positive we consumers are about such a niche to think. This is really a smart marketing job. The hamster race in which the industry is located continuously provides new niches and makes individual solutions possible for almost every type of consumer.

Because the oh, so effective marketing about the recent finds not only generates interest in these new products, it also ensures that we people are increasingly hungry for something new. And before we realize that, such a different concept is already on the news pages of Autoweek or Autovisie. Recently I was so impressed with the new Citroën C4. The long-legged sedan with retro pulls impresses in terms of an SUV-like concept and that reminded me of when I saw the new E-Kadett in the wild when I was a little boy for the first time. At the time, it also had such an impact with the round design. By the way, another great find or a new niche that C4. Also one that will probably be copied a few times before another manufacturer surprises us with another new idea.

The niche hamsters will undoubtedly run even faster in the near future, because we consumers would like to be surprised again. The recurring car surprise has thus become a kind of drug. One that has finally let us get rid of the functional and solid car and with it a nebula that must continue to be fed daily by the profession of car marketing. The traditional car has become boring in our current thinking. The crossover frame of reference, carefully built up by the car marketing, has ensured that we want a new type of car time and time again. A concept that we have never experienced before.

The current approach also means that the success of the car brands remains fleeting and transient. Many niches are now making sales, numerous new players suddenly get a piece of the crop and that one strong hero model from then is no longer there. If you do not pay attention to the latest trends, as a manufacturer you now immediately have a few lean years, because what has already been, the consumer no longer buys. More than 30 years with more or less the same model number one in the country is therefore no longer possible. The product range has become too fragmented for that, the changes are also going too fast for that. Thanks to the marketing department of the car brands. And no, the collapse of sales success was not for the Kadett. Car marketers simply do their job very effectively, which results in many new variants. Models we are only too happy to buy. Thank you effective car marketing!

Jos van den Bergh (1973) worked for almost 20 years in various PR & communication positions in the automotive industry and currently advises with his company MediaMondo automotive and media parties in the field of marketing communication, PR and media. For MarketingTribune he critically follows developments in the car world. Do you also need marketing advice? Mail Jos without any obligation at jjbergh@gmail.com

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