Branding vs Product: Lotus takes centre stage in Paris
Group Lotus has made a lot of announcements this week. It issued concept sketches for a bunch of new race cars, including an LMP2 coupé designed by Paulo Catone, who engineered the Le Mans-winning Peugeot 908 (hang on a minute, though – isn’t LMP2 becoming a cost-capped formula for privateers, hmmm?).
Today at the Paris Motor Show it will officially unveil five* new road car models that go some way beyond its traditional two-seater sportscar model, and which establish a new design language courtesy of incoming ex-Ferrari stylist Donato Coco. They will roll out between 2013 and 2015. There’s the Elite, a mid-engined 2+2 with the option of a Toyota-derived hybrid powertrain. There are new versions of the Elan and Elise, plus the rebirth of the Esprit, which will take on the Ferrari 458 Italia. There’s also a four-door called the Eterne, which targets the Porsche Panamera…
So where’s the money coming from for this new model splurge? Before recruiting CEO Dany Bahar from Ferrari, Proton, the owner of Group Lotus, decided on a strategy which others less delicate than I would call “shit or bust”: either sell it off or make it finally live up to its potential.
Fair enough – but, yes, where’s the money coming from? Proton isn’t exactly flush, and Lotus recently applied for a loan from the UK Government which it did not get (what do you expect from a Prime Minister who’s never had a proper job?).
While we’re at it – where and how are these products going to be made? Whence are the raw materials going to be sourced and paid for? Who will build the cars, and where? Some aspects of this great whoosh of announcements will disturb those who remember the dying days of another well-known British car manufacturer.
Ten years ago MG Rover had a similar new model push: there was an LMP2 equivalent (then called LMP675), a new city car and a new high-end sportscar. The difference then was that the expansion came through partnership and/or acquisitions: the MG-badged LMP675 was done with Lola, the Cityrover was acquired from Tata and the MG XPower SV was a (hideously) facelifted Qvale Mangusta. MG Rover needed a quick fix that these products didn’t deliver.
Still, there are reasons for optimism: a venerable motoring scribe recently visited the Group Lotus base and was reportedly blown away by what he saw. Some of these new models will not be built until the middle of the decade, so there is no requirement for an immediate five-fold increase in manufacturing capacity. Today’s announcement is a land grab for headlines and a bold statement of intent.
Tucked away in the small print is another telling detail: Lotus will scale down its dealer network to offer better service and a more exclusive face. As much as anything else, today is about reclaiming the brand and the famous badge with the ACBC initials, but also beginning a process of rehabilitation – consigning the epithet Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious to the dustbin of history.
What’s in a badge?
Yesterday’s revelation that the simmering tension between Lotus Racing and Group Lotus exploded into outright rancour over the seemingly trivial issue of t-shirts cuts right to the heart of this issue. What’s in a name? What, indeed, is in a badge?
You may equally say – why can’t they just get along?
Anyone who works in the marketing industry or its tertiary sectors will tell you that branding is all about control. Every major company has strict guidelines about colour palettes, font families and the size, shape and alignment of the logo. When you produce marketing materials on behalf of these brands you either stick to these guidelines or you have your homework thrown back at you along with a curt instruction to do it again, properly.
By his own admission, Dany Bahar is not a “car guy”. But he knows about brands, and having a bunch of clowns running off t-shirts, baseball caps, posters, etc (let alone a whole Formula 1 team) off the back of “his” brand must have made him apoplectic. For here’s another unspoken truth about the branding industry: it’s the home of not-invented-here syndrome. To any branding wonk from a multinational corporation, anything produced by an outside body (especially when unauthorised) is automatically bad, even if it’s good. Only the best agencies get over this hurdle.
While we’re in the market for truths, here’s another one that governs the car industry: show, don’t tell. You can throw money at branding and seductive advertisements, but the success of a car manufacturer is measured in sales. That means, in no particular order: having a compelling product; having a product that doesn’t start falling apart the moment it leaves the showroom; and having dealers who don’t treat the customer like a dead shrew that the cat dumped at the bottom of the stairs.
Can Lotus deliver all of these? It will have to.
*There was a sixth kicking about, a city car, but it wasn’t part of the main reveal.