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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tired brands: Rover

A dog of a brand

Rover has been making cars since 1904 and contributed its share of technological advances – the Rover gas turbine car in 1950 and the four-wheel drive T3 in 1956 with its fibreglass bodywork.

The P4, P5 and P6 series became hallmarks of British motoring throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with the P4 affectionately known as ‘Auntie’ Rover. During the prosperous post-war years, Britons bought as many Rovers as the company could turn out, but its industrial problems in the 1970s signaled the start of a long decline.

In 1994 BMW bought the UK manufacturer, trying to transform it into a competitive carmaker for the 21st century. But BMW was mainly interested in the group’s Land Rover division of four-wheel drive vehicles.

The Rover 75 was the first new car produced after BMW had bought the troubled company so every effort was made to ensure that it was a technical and aesthetic success. At first, these efforts seemed to have paid off. Across Europe, Japan and the Middle East, the Rover 75 was heralded as an excellent car by the automotive press during the year of its launch, 1999. One magazine commended its ‘elegant retro look’, and described it as ‘classy, stylish and refined.’ In total, the car won 10 international motor industry awards. And yet, despite such weighty endorsements, people have been reluctant to buy the car. In 1999, just 25,000 were sold, which was well below target figures.

The problem, it appeared, was not with the car itself, but with the brand.

According to Jeremy Clarkson the Rover name has a certain stigma attached to it. ‘It’s just about the least cool badge in the business,’ he said. ‘Rover, the name, is a dog.’

Of course, this may only be a matter of opinion. The sales figures, on the other hand, are a matter of fact. ‘A look at the numbers shows that the buyers are bargain hunters who flock to the showrooms only in response to extraordinary discounts,’ reported the BBC. The sluggish sales associated with the Rover 75 were therefore symptomatic of a broader problem regarding the Rover name itself. The company had become, in the words of one journalist, ‘a living symbol of the UK motor industry’s decline.’

‘The Rover 75 was the turning point. It was supposed to be the car that set the seal on Rover’s renaissance,’ says Jay Nagley of the Spyder consultancy.

‘The Rover 75 was a good car, but the problem with Rover is the image. People in that market sector didn’t necessarily want the Rover image no matter how good a car it was attached to.’

By March 2000, BMW had had enough. With Rover piling up £2m losses a day, the firm decided to break up the company.

Lessons from Rover

  • If the name doesn’t work, change it. Critics suggested the Rover name should be dumped and rebranded as Triumph.
  • Concentrate on the brand not the products. ‘The problem is the brand rather than the cars,’ said motor consultant Jay Nagley.

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