Breaking mum: how Vauxhall and Mother redefined car marketing

Too many car brands still have a problem communicating with women. Nicola Kemp explores how Vauxhall and Mother took a very different approach for the Crossland X ad campaign.

"It might make more sense if you want to come back with your husband." So said a car dealer to a 37-year-old working mother of two attempting to jump through the numerous hoops and requisite social awkwardness of trying to part with thousands of pounds on a new car. (Not it might be said for her husband, who had already successfully purchased a car for himself, without any hand-holding from his wife.) This conversation took place not in the cigarette-smoke-wreathed, everyday-sexism world of the 1970s, but in 2017.

There is a reason why a growing pool of research has found that the favourite car brand among women is "don’t know"; all too many car brands seemingly don’t know how to communicate with women. 

Make no mistake, the car industry needs to change radically. Despite the headlines generated by the introduction of virtual reality to showrooms and the hype surrounding online selling (although the total number of sales via the web remains in single digits), the process of buying a car hasn’t fundamentally shifted since the 1970s. It is a state of play that means the industry has a fundamental problem in connecting and marketing to women.

The Mother of all risks

It is at this point in our somewhat sorry tale that Mother, the ad agency famed for bringing emotion to flat-pack furniture through its Ikea work and the creation of the imminently unforgettable "epic strut" for, enters the picture. Having picked up its first automotive brand in the shape of Vauxhall, with a brief to launch its latest SUV, the Crossland X, it was clear from the beginning that the agency, with the backing of Simon Oldfield, marketing director at Vauxhall, would change the record when it comes to marketing cars to women. 

90% of women will not visit a car dealership without a man

Instead of teaming up with a women’s magazine to launch a limited-edition model or focusing on the product specifications in isolation, it was decided to take a very different approach for the Crossland X,  leaning not on car marketing campaigns of the past, but instead a cultural point of reference.

The "Pyjama mamas" campaign was a tongue-in-cheek retort to news last year that a headteacher asked parents to stop doing the school run in their pyjamas. The TV ad quickly garnered significant attention on social media and was perhaps the first car brand to ignite an equally passionate debate on both a parenting site (Mumsnet) and a motoring enthusiasts' forum (Pistonheads).

When you hear the story behind the Crossland X it is easy to understand why the brand was so keen to take a different approach. This shift in thinking began way before the advertising strategy came to fruition.

"This car is unique because it was designed from the inside out. It was all about the space utilisation inside, and how that was maximised," explains Vauxhall’s Oldfield.

As a mass-market brand (Vauxhall is the sixth-biggest car manufacturer in the UK, according to Motoring Research), it was obvious that the Crossland X needed to have a mass-market appeal. However, the team was clear that it needed to try "something different". 

Simon Oldfield, marketing director, Vauxhall

Creating space

The automotive market is in the midst of a radical transformation, with car brands no longer the status symbol they once were. "One of the interesting things we are seeing is the reduction in people aged 18 to 22 with a driving licence," explains Oldfield.  It is a trend that he believes began well before the growth of the sharing economy and the rising cost of car insurance. 

82% of women involved in buying a new family car with their partner are equally or mainly responsible for research, planning and decision-making

With these huge changes happening at an urban level, Oldfield argues that the concept of "personal space"  has grown in value to consumers. He believes that the sense of time and space provided by driving is a key emotional driver of sales. "It is still that sense of freedom, that ability to get in a car and do what you want to do that is so powerful," he says. "Granted, Uber does overcome some of that, but it doesn’t necessarily give you that same sense of independence."

While the economic challenge of Brexit is increasing pricing pressures in the market, British consumers continue to have a unique and, at times, eccentric relationship with their vehicles. The UK market, for example, continues to overindex on sales of soft-tops and coupés, despite the country's unpredictable weather.

In line with this, Oldfield says that car brands remain a key source of self-expression for consumers. He explains: "Even when you look at a brand like Tesla, it still has a persona, and, like all successful brands, it says something about the consumer who buys it."

Tapping into this sense of personality and eccentricity was key to the "Pyjama mamas" strategy. 

Tapping into the culture of continual upgrade

The car market is not just grappling with how to communicate better with women. There is also a major shift afoot in the way in which people purchase cars. The challenge posed by the devaluation of the pound means the sector is facing significant pressure. The shift to leasing schemes, meanwhile, also demands a shift in marketing strategy.

"People are not looking to put down a large deposit, [but] instead lease. This has an impact on your go-to market strategy," says Oldfield.

He predicts that over the next couple of years consumers will buy cars in the way they purchase mobile phones, in effect, leasing the car from the manufacturer and then building an ongoing relationship based on continual upgrades.

The promise of connected cars could make this relationship stronger.

"We have the ability to share directly with the retailers live updates from the cars – from warning lights to low tyre pressure – meaning the retailer can drive more proactive contact with the consumer," Oldfield adds.

This heralds a digitally driven conversation that will, hopefully, mark the end of the outdated and at times unwelcoming "dealer" model. Certainly for the Vauxhall Crossland, the "Pyjama mamas" campaign marks the beginning of a new relationship with the consumer. Love it or loathe it, a change of direction in a sea of blandness is overdue.

Quantifying the problem

Why the car industry needs to change the way it  talks to women

  • According to research from Different Spin, an automotive experience innovation lab from, 90% of women would not visit a car dealership without a male partner, family member or friend.
  • More than half (56%) said they felt patronised by car advertising. This is a marketing own goal, made all the more shocking when placed in the context of the prediction that, by 2025, UK women are expected to account for 60% of all personal wealth, according to data from the Centre for Economics and Business Research.
  • 82% of women involved in buying a new family car with their partner are equally or mainly responsible for research, planning and decision-making. 

The top priorities when buying a car are:
Price: 57%
Reliability: 45%
Fuel Economy: 41%
Because it’s pink: 0%

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