Car Clubs and Manufacturers – the two-way street that needs signposting

Next Step Heritage

Cars and the car hobby are peculiarly unique in many respects, but especially when it comes to the club scene. People love coffee, cycling, fashion, and a multitude of other pursuits that enrich their lives, but rarely do they form clubs around the manufacturers of those products. And even more rarely do they devote large portions of their lives to pursuing them with almost religious zeal.
One would assume that automotive OEMs would be grateful for the fanaticism, but it’s not always the case, and it is here that the club has a role to work with their manufacturer to develop a mutually beneficial relationship. As part of our work with the Club Leaders’ Forum, we’ve identified this as an important issue and welcomed Simon Hucknall, PR manager for Vauxhall cars and manager of their famous Heritage Fleet, and Shaun Broadbent, President of the Vauxhall Bedford Opel Association (VBOA) attend our last session to discuss how a relationship should work.

Clear communication is key

The key message to come from the discussion was the importance of good, consistent, open communication – signposting the two-way street.

A club needs to first work out what it can do for the manufacturer, to ensure that the relationship is mutually beneficial. Some of the biggest OEMs have an established Classic or Heritage division with sanctioned restorations, parts sales, and events, and this makes it easier. For example, the club could promote the sale of genuine parts through official channels to its members.

Smaller and less established brands won’t have this readymade option, but there is still a role for the club to play. In Vauxhall’s case, the brand has been in the UK market since 1903, and they use heritage to reinforce values of trustworthiness and stability, and along with the likes of Twining’s and Oxo, they are one of the great British brands. In uncertain times, there’s something intrinsically reassuring about a company who have been here with us through thick and thin.

For Vauxhall, being associated with tens of thousands of club members and their cars stretching back to the earliest days of the brand is a brilliant way to share their extensive heritage with future customers. That’s not to mention the owners of these old cars, who all need something modern to drive, which in many cases is a new Vauxhall. For the individual clubs that are a part of the VBOA, incorporating manufacturer presence at major events like the NEC Restoration Show and access to display cars from Vauxhall’s own collection is a brilliant way to reinforce legitimacy, and offering events like factory visits is a great member benefit. The two-way street is flowing smoothly, its foundation being communication.

Making it work

Many of the well-established manufacturers have highly developed club programs. Mercedes-Benz flies the Chairman of each officially sanctioned club to an annual meeting in Germany, Porsche have special club finance packages and offer club members special access to approved used vehicles, and Bentley is working closely with the club to celebrate the brand’s 100th anniversary this year.

It’s often the Public Relations department who manage relationships with clubs, and individual clubs need to be aware that there are often many factors involved in obtaining support. Budgets are always tightly controlled, the time of the PR department is always under pressure, and the staff will need to show their bosses a return for their efforts. While on a personal level they may love to support a club event, they will often have to report with metrics like the Advertising Value Equivalency (AVE), a monitoring technique to assess return on investment. Say it costs the department £1500 to attend an event with some vehicles or to open the factory for a tour, they will need to demonstrate that these actions were more valuable than simply taking out a £1500 advert in the newspaper.

The manufacturer’s brand will be positioned in the market, and the primary responsibility of the club is to ensure that its activities reinforce this positioning and do not detract from it. For example, the quality of communications coming from the club office should match those of the manufacturer.

And as is the case in many clubs, the demographic skew of membership is often toward older males. For a brand that is targeting a younger audience skewed more evenly between male and female, this could be an obvious roadblock to providing support.

Taking some action is better than no action

This is why it comes back to communication. If the club is self-aware enough to open dialogue with the manufacturer and simply ask the question of what a good relationship would look like for them, the common ground may be a lot closer than many suspect. It could start by simply having your regions reach out to their local dealer. You could contact the PR department (details are usually on the manufacturer’s website) and schedule a coffee meeting to discuss joint projects, volunteer significant club cars for dealer or manufacturer events. The first steps of a relationship could be as basic as keeping the PR department informed on club activities by sending regular press releases, and offering to share theirs with your membership.

There are several clubs in the UK that have excellent relationships with their parent manufacturer, and when it works, it can deliver a great payoff for both parties. It all starts with signposting and opening up the two-way street.