In the days prior to the turn of the new millennium, when we were all still happily politically un-correct, jokes which poked fun at things we actually thought ‘funny’ was still an okay thing to do. You could get away with Englishman/Scotsman/Irishman quips; you could lighten the mood with the odd apocryphal tale about young females just to the east of London and you could certainly guffaw heartily at the efforts of a certain Czech Republic car manufacturer called Skoda.
At one stage it seemed like every other joke invented was one about Skoda’s roadworthy credentials:
- What do you call a Skoda with twin exhaust pipes? A wheelbarrow
- What do you call a Skoda with a sunroof? A skip
- Why does a Skoda have a heated rear windscreen? It keeps your hands warm when you push it.
And the list went on. But as we jumped into the new century, something quite extraordinary happened to Skoda as it transformed from an object of ridicule to a proper challenger brand literally overnight.
The transformation of Skoda is a classic textbook case study in brand repositioning.
Of course, this successful metamorphosis did not happen overnight. It really began ten years earlier in 1991 when Volkswagen took a shine to this company slowly coming out from the shadows of the old Eastern Block. VW saw potential and took a 30% share. In the proceeding decade, VW invested heavily in education and training and gradually brought the skill set of the Skoda workforce and their quality of manufacturing techniques up to the high standards of its own operations. After ten years of dedicated input and commitment, VW knew they had the right product and bought the Skoda organisation outright.
The challenge now, clearly, was to convince the public because while all this VW investment and planning was going on, the jokes were getting louder and the people driving Skodas were getting older.
VW knew they had quite a task on their hands. They needed to quickly distance Skoda from being just a cheap car that pensioners drive and, at the same time, find a position in the market where Skoda could stand alone and exist as itself – not simply a re-branded VW. Intent on positioning Skoda as a true, value-for-money vehicle, the company got busy with the launch of the Felicia and the Octavia.
Now, at this particular moment in the history of the world, if you’d asked the average man or woman in the street if they would ever consider purchasing a Skoda to drive (or have as an ornament for the drive), two-thirds of those polled would have probably torn the research paper up in your face: it was never going to happen. The enormity of what was ahead of them was there for any Skoda marketing executive to see. They were building the cars better than ever before but they would be more expensive than ever before AND nobody wanted one. Some brief!
The successful answer, however, wasn’t just to throw boatloads of advertising dollars at the challenge. The initial £10M launch of Felicia and Octavia in the UK had proved lukewarm by way of results and VW realised they needed to be much smarter if they were to get anywhere near changing the public perception of this brand. The next product off the assembly line was the Skoda Fabia.
VW knew the car would stack up well against the opposition and there wasn’t a problem with brand awareness – it was simply brand image that needed to shift.
The marketing success finally happened via a bold but clever piece of marketing foreplay. Brands playing the old ‘self-depreciation’ card can prove dangerous territory but Skoda’s call out of ‘It’s a Skoda. Honest.” on the advertising for the new launch seemed to hit the right tone. It was a much lower key campaign (and used far less VW budget) but it amused an otherwise cynical audience and that alone was enough to send them in their thousands on to the forecourts and in to the dealerships to see what all the fuss was about. The results were staggering. Sales of the car rocketed and the brand’s market share doubled in two years.
The process of getting people to come and see and [maybe] test drive a Skoda had begun but there was still a lot of resistance to purchase for many potential customers. The company quickly followed up the ‘Honest’ campaign with another well-positioned advertising message. In one commercial, a female customer is happily engaged with a Skoda salesman. Just as she is about to agree and sign the deal, she pauses and, suddenly realising what she is contemplating, hurtles out of the showroom. A strapline follows which, as we all recall with a smile, remarks “It’s a Skoda. Which, for some, is still a problem.”
For those punters who couldn’t quite bring themselves to commit to buying ‘a Skoda!?’ before, this piece of advertising was to prove a tipping point. It was a watershed moment for the brand which had, through a quirky chunk of self-effacing communication, pushed its street cred through the roof. Sales again were impacted and for the first time, much to amazement of dealership staff (but, not, probably the quietly smug marketing team and its agency), Skoda had a waiting list for its cars.
Across 2000/2001, VW began to reap the rewards of ten years investment thanks, in large part, to the smart repositioning of a car brand which seemed likely to drive no further than the borders of its Czech home. The jokes dried up, the average age of a Skoda driver dropped and less people tore up the research questionnaires. Skoda could now move forward and focus on a different advertising strategy about how good their cars actually are. ‘Made of lovely/meaner stuff’ has been the message for the last five years for a car brand that’s rolling in the right direction.
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