Capture the imagination, conjure enduring images then reap the benefits; it’s a marketeer’s dream. Strong associations have been formed between event and manufacturer ever since Henry Ford realised how much money could be made from selling motorcars, and that public aspiration was the key to success. There’s a chasm that separates quiet association and truly brand-defining characterisation, however, and such instances are few and far between. Land Rover and the Camel Trophy? Undoubtedly. The thundering sight and sounds of a Mica Blue Impreza’s off-beat charge towards WRC success? Absolutely. Two perfect examples of circumstance and machine providing an unmistakable mental picture, but why are such associations so scarce? I don’t mean iconic images, or single snapshots in time, but unbreakable links that far outlast any single event, inspire generations and establish an eternal brand distinction.
During the first year of the Camel Trophy, 1980, for example, three teams set out equipped in Jeeps, before Land Rover took over in ’81 and successfully kicked off a 20-year association (longer if you include the subsequent G4 Challenge).The connection boosted Land Rover’s reputation and the clamour for ex-Camel Trophy vehicles has always been immense – despite the fact you were guaranteed a car that’s faced one of the most gruelling automotive challenges on the planet. Funny, as the merest hint that a Land Rover has seen any mud is usually enough to put off the legions of non-geographically-specific school run consumers… Close your eyes and play word association, and ‘Camel Trophy’ leads to the image of a sand-yellow Land Rover wading through brown water while its occupants sup Darjeeling from a floating canister. The moral is, succeed where others have failed – or merely left an opening – and you’re destined for eminent greatness.
It’s a lesson that BMW learnt during filming of the Long Way Round series, and which has given a huge boost to the reputation of its motorcycles. Supply of bikes for the series was set to be split, but where other manufacturers backed out, BMW stepped up and created a lasting association to the point where, as a non-biker, the question of trans-continental, all-terrain motorbikes is met with the image of Ewan McGregor falling off a BMW.
Peugeot made a noble attempt at creating such associations in the 80s. Firstly by putting Ari Vatanen in an incredibly elaborate, bewinged 405 T16 and pointing him towards Pikes Peak (I implore you if you haven’t already, to seek out the video ‘Climb Dance’ on YouTube) and then, with an all-time record achieved, pitting the same driver in the legendary Paris-Dakar rally. Two interesting parallels are introduced here: that Citroen could be seen as attempting a similar route to distinction through the strategic and varied use of Sebastian Loeb, and that Paris-Dakar is an effective maker of reputations and brands. Peugeot, for example, won the event for four years on the trot before feeling like they’d ‘done that’ and moving on, before the Mitsubishi era of dominance prevailed. Pajeros won the event 12 times between 1985 and 2007, since when both MINI and Volkswagen brands have flirted with dominance. Perhaps it’s my age, but ‘Paris-Dakar’ brings to mind images of airborne Mitsubishis emerging from a cloud of sand, and with it, that Pajeros must be pretty tough off-roaders.
Jaguar thought laterally and used its sponsorship of Team Sky to promote its new models during the Tour De France, but I’ll let you decide if the sight of an F-Type carrying pushbikes is an image to inspire or perplex. Likewise, Volvo kept the use of its estate 850 in the BTCC as a secret right up until the last second. A genius publicity stunt and one that has lived long in the memory, but it lacked the competitive edge to be truly defining.
So what next? A couple of years ago it looked like Audi could develop similar associations with the World Endurance Championship and, in particular, Le Mans, but that was quelled with the emergence of rivals to its crown and new technology. And can anybody honestly say the same opportunities exist in Formula 1? With the possible exception of Austin, Harris Tweed and any UK hillclimb venue, brand-defining opportunities are best sought away from mainstream motorsport…