Holden’s mission to chop the mullet and restyle the brand

Back in September, Holden assembled a crowd of media types for a pagan-inspired celebration of the equinox. It was a theme fully embraced by Holden general manager of corporate affairs Edward Finn, who addressed the crowd in full druid garb, resembling a slightly less hirsute version of a Tolkienian wizard.

The equinox, we were told, has been celebrated for thousands of years as a time of rejuvenation and as the precursor to warmer months.

For Holden, this theme of rejuvenation is important as the brand looks to make a strategic shift from its boganic heritage to a modern, urban target market. But this shift comes with significant risk.

If the brand is perceived to be turning its back on loyalists, then it will lose that business to one of the many competitors in the market. Similarly, if the shift is too lukewarm, it’ll do little to convince new consumers to give the brand a go—leaving Holden in a veritable dead zone somewhere between mullets one side and hipster beards on the other.

“Holden is deeply woven into the social fabric of New Zealand,” said Holden New Zealand managing director Kristian Aquilina on the night. “It is iconic and it has had deep meaning for a lot of people in this country over a long period of time.”

Much of this meaning has until now been attributed to the Commodore, which has for decades been the flagship model in the Holden range.

“So dominant was this, that Holden became Commodore and Commodore became Holden to the point where that dominance overshadowed all the other feathers we have in our cap: sweet convertibles, new Astra sports cars, a great SUV range and large trucks,” Aquilina said.

“We had the range but we couldn’t get past our association with the Commodore in people’s minds.”

Aquilina says this heavy association with the Commodore led to the whole Holden brand being perceived as “Westie” and probably more suitable for “grandad” among modern consumers.

“After calling it for what it is, we knew the job that was ahead of us.”

Holden isn’t the only brand to have faced this challenge, of course, with Aquilina pointing to the example of Burberry, which became intrinsically linked to Chav culture despite its high-end slant.

“This wasn’t the Burberry type of icon, was it?”

To shift the brand away from its uncomfortable associations with the past, Holden has changed the way in which it communicates the brand to the local market.

While this job is certainly not easy, Aquilina finds himself in a slightly better position than the Australian market, where an end to production at the Adelaide plant has created a major PR challenge for the business.     

Holden vehicles have not been produced in the local market since the early 1990s, which means Aquilina is in a somewhat privileged position of focusing on evolving the perception of the brand and showcasing the full breadth of the range without having to win back customer trust. 

This strategy is clearly evident in Holden’s latest campaign by Special Group, which includes a series of 30-second spots all trumpeting different vehicles and starring a diverse array of drivers. A Kiwi bloke, a young in their early 20s, an animal lover and a caring friend all star in the spots, designed to highlight features and products that viewers might not be aware of. 

Viewed together, the message is clear: Holden is no longer a single-car brand for blokes, but rather a vehicle provider for a diverse array of New Zealanders. 

This campaign really builds on the groundwork the Holden marketing team, led by Marnie Samphier, has done over the last year.   

While some of the marketing messaging over that time has tended toward subtlety, other aspects have also attempted to make loud and clear statements.

The best example of this would be Holden’s April Fools’ prank earlier this year, which invited New Zealanders to trade their mullets for a new car. One lucky punter obliged and sacrificed his mullet to drive away in a $30,000 Astra. As far as symbolism goes, there could perhaps be no better metaphor for Holden’s intention than a scraggly mullet lying on the floor of the dealership.

This theme of the brand’s customers evolving also became apparent in Holden’s other recent TV campaigns, also by Special Group.

A late 2016 campaign showed a man trade in his 1980s rocker look for a more something a little suaver, while a more recent spot for the Holden ute shows a good Samaritan with a vigilante streak towing away the vehicle of rude driver.

The shifting positioning of the brand in these ads is in line with the evolution of masculinity in modern culture. It’s not about saying that masculinity is bad or wrong but rather that it’s expressed in different ways these days.

What’s more is that Holden isn’t only focused on blokes any longer. It’s also looking to tell the stories of car models that might appeal to younger women.

One way the brand has done this over the last year is by working with magazine publishers that are well read by the target market.  

The Carversations campaign, delivered through Paperboy, Fashion Quarterly, Miss FQ and Taste, featured young, influential New Zealanders driving around the city in a Holden Spark, talking about their careers. In addition, Holden also invested in Miss FQ’s Intern project, which saw 21-year-old Aucklander Ashleigh Ilton employed at the publication as an intern. Fittingly, she drove around in a Holden for the entire campaign.

Holden has also thrown its weight behind Newsroom, coming on as one of the founding sponsors of the Tim Murphy and Mark Jennings’ news brand.   

Combined, these initiatives are helping to shift the perception of the brand, while also showcasing the different models available in the range.

And as Holden announced its lineup for 2018, it’s notable that the star of the show was not the Commodore (as it has been in so many years before), but a new SUV, dubbed the Equinox.

Beyond pulling the Holden brand out of Commodore’s leather seats, this is also an important business decision for the brand.

Between 2014 and 2016, the Commodore has slipped from the second-best selling car model to the eighth. Motor Industry Association stats show that Holden sold 3,001 Commodores in 2014, down to 2,710 in 2015 and then to 2,455 in 2016.

While the New Zealand appetite for sedans is abating to some degree, Aquilina points to opportunity in the weekend warrior’s vehicle of choice.    

“The medium SUV segment is the largest and fastest-growing part of the new vehicle market, accounting for almost 17 percent of sales at the end of August year to date,” says Aquilina.   

“Holden is now in a position to debut an all-new nameplate into this important part of the market and will be taking the fight to established players with the launch of seven different specification levels of Equinox.”

At least as the brand takes the fight to its competitors, it won’t be at risk of a dirty mullet pull this time. 

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