When Stephen Norman took over the top job at Vauxhall, he was well aware he had a Herculean task before him as the car brand battled declining sales and a loss of identity.
The brand had positioned itself solely on price but this was “unsustainable” and parent company Groupe PSA – where Norman had been senior vice-president of sales and marketing – flew him in to turn the positioning around.
Norman, who waves his hands when animated and peers over his rounded spectacles to emphasis a point, is unafraid to admit Vauxhall had “lost its way”.
“Our issue isn’t the loyalty of our customers, our issue is getting additional customers from other brands. That’s the job I’ve been sent here to do.” And he admits it is a “massive” task that sits before him.
Despite his candour he is careful not to criticise his predecessors. He says there’s nothing wrong with Vauxhall selling cars positioned on price, because the strategy had been working, “which is not easy to do, even in today’s car market”. But Vauxhall now needs to focus on more than price to reverse the slump in sales and futureproof the brand.
When Norman arrived in February 2018, Vauxhall’s market share was 7.4% and declining. He has pledged to increase this to 9% by 2021, with marketing key to this turnaround.
“Marketing can’t make a good car out of a car that’s average, but there’s nothing wrong with Vauxhall cars. What marketing can do is draw attention to them and make sure the value proposition is sufficiently intriguing to say ‘I’ll take a look’,” he explains.
Norman likens the changes he’s made to the business structure to reorganising the drawers in his desk. “I didn’t have to take any drawer out and turn it upside down, but I did have to rearrange everything in each one. Retail, network development and communications – all of them needed a little bit of adjustment.”
There are some areas of communication that, no matter how much you may personally like them, will offend people, and there is no benefit in offending people.
Stephen Norman, Vauxhall
He started the process by doing a deep-dive into all Vauxhall’s data.
“It can only start by taking a look at the brand fundamentals, whether that is the content of images, or the main KPIs, awareness, image, price, positioning,” he explains.
His conclusion was Vauxhall’s marketing was “transparent”. “I don’t think it was bad, I wouldn’t say it was invisible – that would be really cutting as there was huge amount of money being spent on football sponsorship, etc – but it was transparent, so you could see through it.
“From that I mean if you asked someone for their image of Vauxhall they would say ‘Is it good? Yes. Is it bad? Possibly. Does it bother me? No, it doesn’t. Does it interest me? Not a lot.’“
In defence of marketing
Prior to Vauxhall, Norman spent nearly four years heading up marketing at Groupe PSA, during which time he concluded corporate and brand marketing are like “chalk and cheese”.
He explains: “The need to oscillate between one or the other is absolutely essential. If you do [brand jobs] for too long you forget how to do [corporate] and if you do [corporate] for too long you die of boredom, so you need both.”
Is there one he prefers? “Well, I was bloody glad to come here and get into operations,” he laughs. “I am old now so this will probably be my last mission, but if I were a younger man there would be a point where I would say, ‘OK, I’ve done that now and I’d like to go back and do something cerebral and strategic’. The two have their charms. I get bored easily so I need both.”
Norman is unequivocal in his passion for the science of marketing and is quick to defend the industry unprompted: “The marketing industry has been considered a bit of a joke industry before; there is a science to it and it requires an incredible amount of application.”
This opinion also extends to leadership: “There is almost no limit to the demanding nature of a successful marketing manager. Transferring that to a managing director’s role is but a short step. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a successful managing director in my career – and I have been in five different corporations in various different places – who was lackadaisical or just intuitive. It requires an incredible amount of application.”
Under pressure to deliver
This demanding nature is not without its drawbacks, something which Norman reflects on. “I am least proud of the hurt I could have caused to people through the fact that I am very seldom satisfied with anything.”
Has he softened in old age? “Possibly. When you are a perfectionist it is difficult not to be one, but you’re not always right so you have to moderate it, don’t you? As you get older it gets a bit better, but I wouldn’t say I am easy to work for in any shape or form.”
This inability to be satisfied also takes its toll on Norman who admits that “bad sales results” keep him up at night. “I was up this morning from two o’clock to three o’clock walking round the house thinking how are we going to do the second quarter?”
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For a self-diagnosed perfectionist Norman is not shy about admitting his failures: “I’ve made many, many, many mistakes, one or two of which have cost me my job. And when that’s happened to you a couple of times you’re bloody careful you don’t make those same mistakes again.”
While he didn’t lose his job over it, there is one mistake that sticks in his mind in particular – the 1998 French launch of the Volkwagen’s Golf 4, which depicted The Last Supper.
“Jesus Christ extended his arms and a bubble came out of his mouth, which said ‘Rejoice, the new Golf has arrived’,” he says. There was also an iteration featuring St John the Baptist taking out the rubbish.
Unsurprisingly, the ads were met with criticism from religious groups and Norman saw “the whole world collapsed around our ears”. He even received Bibles with messages like, ‘as you’re going to hell there may be some redemption if you start reading this’. “I got a lot of that sort of stuff it was really heavy,” he recalls.
If you do [brand jobs] for too long you forget how to do [corporate] and if you do [corporate] for too long you die of boredom, so you need both.
Stephen Norman, Vauxhall
It also had repercussions for his career. Norman was called to the head office in Germany and given a written warning. The painful memory, and the lessons he learned, are clearly still on his mind 20 years later.
“Firstly, you learn there are some areas of communication that, no matter how much you may personally like them, will offend people, and there is no benefit at all in offending people. Secondly, there’s no gratitude in offence. You don’t have to offend people to make good adverts”.
Lastly, he learnt the importance of loyalty – and how quickly it can be lost. “Some of the people around me who approved the advertisement, when the going got hot, very rapidly forgot they had ever actually seen it or approved it. The advertising agency concerned [DDB] were solid as a rock throughout and I still have very fond memories; I’ll never forgot their loyalty.”
However, he is clear he only had himself to blame: “There is no point getting angry at other people, but you can get angry at yourself. You can say, ‘why did I do that? Is it some sort of exaggerated narcissism? What made you think that could work?’”
Why you should never say ‘yes’ to agencies
Aware of the gigantic turnaround task ahead of him when he arrived at Vauxhall last year, he wasted no time in meeting with the brand’s dedicated agency Velocity, which is part of McCann.
“I distinctly remember Velocity saying, ‘how long are you giving us to come back with [our proposition]?’ I think they were expecting me to say six months or maybe a year, but I said I’d like a first draft in two weeks and to have it approved in four.”
Velocity came back with ‘A British Brand Since 1903’, and Norman had it approved by the board less than two months since setting the original brief.
However, he is clear that focusing on nationality alone is enough to increase market share. “It is important to remember that in spite of repeated efforts by many manufacturers in various countries, nationality doesn’t sell cars. It is not a reason for purchase, it used to be but you have to go back half a century [to find that].”
A year after launch, Norman says he is tentatively pleased with the results. “I’m not going to say to you we’ve cracked it, but we’ve stopped [sales] going down. Now the job is to make it go up.”
He is also clear the focus on Britishness won’t be Vauxhall’s long-term positioning. “This is what we will do for the time it takes to turnaround the brand’s fortunes in the UK. Then it will be time to look again and say that’s what we did in the turnaround phrase, now what do we do in the power-up phrase?”
It’s no secret that brands are streamlining the number of agencies they work with, with Volkswagen last year culling its roster by 90%.
He explains: “If the notion of a roster agency means you have to put up with crap then it’s a bad idea. I would never be loyal to a roster agreement if the work coming through wasn’t good.”
However, he says he would never rule out having an agency roster – so long as it performs for the company.
He adds: “One of the methods I have always adopted, whether it is media agencies or creative agencies, is that the agency will stop working the moment the client says yes. I still apply that. You never say ‘yes’, you just say ‘it’s not bad please keep working’ and then eventually the deadline traps you.”
“We will be loyal to McCann as long as McCann are on the button. The day their not we’ll be off.”
‘The car industry marks you’
Norman clearly knows a lot about cars having worked in marketing for brands including Volkswagen, Fiat and Renault over the past four decades. Without pausing he reels off specific makes, models and campaigns. However, this is more from necessity rather than sheer passion.
“If I am honest I have tried to move about, but the motor industry marks you. It marks you in terms of making you want to stay but it also marks you as unmarketable, principally because of the life cycle of the product.”
He last tried to move out of the industry in the 1990s in the hopes to transfer to the “snappy marketing” he’d seen his father do at Unilever for more than 40 years.
“If you are in marketing in the motor industry and you’re dealing with a life cycle of seven years and you go to L’Oréal or into pharmaceuticals people will say, ‘OK, but how does your skill set transfer to mine?’ You can say you’ll give it a bash, but they will say, ‘we don’t want people to give it a bash, we want people who know how to do it’,” he explains.
“People who’ve been in FMCG are not always successful in the motor industry for the same reason.”
Knowing all this would he still go into motor industry now? “I wouldn’t be quite so certain as I was 43 years ago,” he says, adding: “I’m not sure I would recommend to one of my children to go into motor industry marketing if they want to have a decent work-life balance”.
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