The Marketing Profile: Phil York of Renault

Phil York, Renault
Phil York, Renault

A leafy corner of Hertfordshire, just to one side of the M25, is an unlikely location for the revival of a faltering French brand. Yet this is precisely the challenge facing Phil York, Renault UK marketing director, at the marque's Maple Cross UK headquarters.

As a long-time Renault servant, 39-year-old York has led the manufacturer's efforts in the growing markets of Croatia and Slovenia, and in July he was drafted in to reverse its declining appeal to UK consumers. His arrival followed the departure of Emmanuel Bouvier to a group role steering the marque's communications for its forthcoming range of electric vehicles.

Fife-born York comes across as genial and eager-to-please. His favourite word seems to be 'opportunity', and he has an undoubted propensity for looking on the bright side; he will need every ounce of this enthusiasm to bring the spark back to Renault's brand.

On moving to the UK role, York was immediately confronted by a series of sobering statistics tracing Renault's dwindling share of the market. By the end of September, sales of its new vehicles were down by an eye-watering 48% year on year, but York claims that this does not tell the whole story of a brand revamping its sales model. Renault recently all but pulled out of the fleet market, which did little to the bottom line, but would have propped up its sales figures.

York is unrepentant. 'We've decided to pull out of certain businesses - some of the fleet business that became unprofitable - to switch to a much more retail-focused strategy. There has been a cleansing of the business and an increased focus on profitability,' he says.

There is little question that the brand has fallen from its 90s high watermark, when its ad stars, Papa and Nicole, dominated dinner-party conversation and the Renault brand was steeped in a sense of Gallic flair.

York produces several statistics to prove that the marque has improved its brand reputation over the past couple of years, but is honest enough to admit that Renault has lost significant ground to rivals and now lies eighth in the rankings behind even luxury marques such as BMW and Audi.

He is now pledging to put the fun-factor back into Renault's advertising. 'The joie de vivre we were associated with in the past is something I would like to come through more in our communications. There is lots of evidence of design innovation, which give people more fun and joy, which is where we need to be positioning the brand.'

To achieve Renault's aim of a 5% share of the UK market by the end of next year, up from about 4.4% at present, the advertising will have be persuasive. However, there is no impressive war chest to fund it - York's communications budget has fallen in line with the marque's market share.

If this situation frustrates him, he is adept at hiding it. Instead, he returns to the theme of 'opportunity' and talks of being more visible in the media. He adds that the marque will use more 'middle-layer' print and digital communications to explain the benefits of specific Renault models.

York's team has also been bolstered by the appointment of former Skoda and Audi marketer Chris Hawken as marketing communications manager. Hawken is widely credited with having transformed the Skoda brand through a series of innovative ad campaigns playing on negative consumer perceptions of the Volkswagen-owned marque. A similarly creative approach will be vital to York's plans to revitalise Renault.

However, any marketing will have to tie in with chief executive Carlos Ghosn's latest strategic direction for the Renault-Nissan alliance, based on the range of four mass-market electric vehicles due in 2011.

The announcement, made at this year's Frankfurt Motor Show, was coupled with the unveiling of a new company strapline, 'Drive the change'. As part of the strategy, Renault will launch a year-long series of campaigns to explain the fresh positioning and drum up interest ahead of the launch of the electric cars.

York believes the strapline captures the company's innovative tradition, as well as its commitment to mass-market motoring. 'Renault has been driving the change, so to speak, for some time, with the creation of new product segments and designs,' he says. 'We're also very people-centric and everything we do is very mass market and generalist, as opposed to the German brands, for instance.'

With 'Drive the change', York claims Renault is backing its words with action by pledging E4bn (£3.6bn) to kick-start the electric-car market in the hope of establishing itself as the leading marque in this area of vehicle technology. '[Electric cars] won't become our mainstream business overnight, but it is an investment in the future. In terms of changing the way the brand is perceived, it is vital,' he says.

In the meantime, Renault has a range of cars to sell. Despite referring specifically to its electric car plans, the new strapline will run on all product advertising implemented by incumbent agency Publicis. York insists that Renault will not move away from this traditional model-led ad strategy to the type of 'range' advertising produced of late by Ford and Toyota.

'Part of the history of Renault has been very product-focused, and we don't want to lose that. At the end of the day people aren't buying a range, they are buying a product,' he argues.

Renault has even avoided the temptation to veer too far from its core strategy of brand-building, despite including all its cars in the government's scrappage incentive scheme. However, York admits that the timing of the scheme was not ideal.

'Scrappage appealed to typically second-hand car buyers who have come up into the entry-level model of the range, which goes against our overall strategy, but it helped the market,' he says.

Brand-building will be top of the agenda when Renault launches its web content service, Renault.tv, on Sky before the end of the year. Audi is doing the opposite, axing its TV channel to focus on web content, but York sees another opportunity.

'Renault TV is a great opportunity to explain more of the brand story to those trying to research their purchase, and one of the things we have found is that users of the website stay on average up to 15 minutes, which means there is content people are finding interesting,' he says.

York's palpable enthusiasm for the brand is to his credit, but a strong degree of realism about the changing state of the car market will be required if his carefully laid plans are to pay dividends.

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