I must admit that the eternal soap opera that is BMC and its descendents never ceases to amaze and impress with its capacity to turn up new and exciting twists. As we all know, the drama should have ended – in 2005 – but, instead, it followed an exciting new tangent… in the Pacific Rim. With PRC’s billions behind it, MG Rover should have been reborn, Phoenix-like, and gone on to flourish.
And it has to be argued that, once the slightly confusing NAC/SAIC situation was rectified as a consequence of a mutual head-banging session prompted by the Chinese Government, MG (and its slightly weird Roewe cousin) are beginning to make waves in China. Sales of this oh-so ‘British’ of companies are moving in the right direction, and with a clever marketing campaign, backed with images of Union flags, red telephone boxes and Beefeaters, the Chinese middle-classes are lapping up the brightest addition to its car manufacturing empire. It would be good to hear from our readers in other global MG markets to see how they’re going down – are Chileans, Azerbaijanis, Israelis, Saudis and Belarussians buying them too?
But it’s definitely a story of two halves. We have this youthful, bright and ambitious company from China expanding and creating (quickly, it has to be said) an all-new model range of cars that people want to buy. And then we have Longbridge. And the clumsily named MG Motor UK.
We all know the story of Longbridge in 2011 and I’m loathe to go over it again: it launches a good product (the MG6), which receives fair and positive reviews in the press, and – shock – looks good on the road. It’s a marketable car that – due to a complete lack of, er, marketing fails to sell. And that spooks the dealers. And once the stories of the disappointing sales further escape into the public domain, that furthers a feeling of failure. And so the cycle of decline begins.
It could be argued, though, that, unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, when the national newspaper press did a great job of grinding BL into the ground, we’re in much better territory now. I’ll get to that in a second – because I do like to put a positive spin on situations like this. But for now, looking back to those dark years is still quite traumatic for me. I put it to a good friend a while back – what is it about us Brits that induces self-loathing?
His response was telling: ‘Did I tell you of the story Michael Edwardes came back with after his first CCMC (European SMMT) meeting as boss of BL? He was greeted by one of his German counterparts “Ah, Mr Edwardes” (as he was then) “from Britain, where you compete against yourselves!” I was told several times by colleagues from our European companies that they couldn’t believe the way that the UK media treated BL. Such behaviour would not have been tolerated in France, Germany, Italy etc. But then, see the Leveson Inquiry…’
We’re still at it today, of course. It’s just that we have less large-scale industry to bitch about these days. And that’s why we’re in better territory right now with regards to MG: outside of the enthusiast community, few people actually know about the company assembling new cars in Longbridge – and perhaps, perhaps, this softly-softly approach precedes a great turn-around in 2012.
I hear that there are moves afoot to turn around the situation. If lots of people watch British Touring Car Championship (BTCC), then they’re soon going to know about MG. The company is going to get high-profile representation – with a high-profile driver – in the series. As marketing goes, it could work very, very well for MG. The series is still widely supported on UK terrestrial TV and has plenty of manufacturer marketing impetus behind it – Chevrolet’s doing well from the association, and it’s hoped that MG will similarly benefit. Let’s hope so, because from what my informants tell me, the ingredients are all there.
However, it goes deeper than this. I can’t imagine for a second that the management in China are not bemused by MG’s lack of sales in the UK. But similarly, it’s also clear that they also need to learn a little more about the European car market and what it takes to achieve success here. And I believe that they are listening – and that slowly, but surely, such badge-engineered mistakes as the MG 350 and MG 550 will need to be dropped in international markets (to be replaced by proper MG5s and MG6s). The MG marque is precious and needs tending to properly – and not watered down. That, of course, means no more MG press shots with Austin 7s and Morris Minors in…
Here, in the UK, you can’t simply sell cars here from a company that’s effectively been moribund for five years and expect the public to climb on board. Potential customers need to be told why they can feel confident that MG’s in safe hands and that the future is secure.
Last year’s wonderful Brand Video should be on heavy rotation the moment the MG6 1850D and MG3/MG5 (with red seatbelts please) are launched – with the message ‘MG is back, and stronger than ever!’ You’ll have an opportunity to start really selling now. Just make sure the dealers are given a hug now and get on board some of those long-standing, small-town former specialists (think Souls of Olney), back into the fold. BTCC success, some more appealing models, an international outlook and a stronger brand identity than us enthusiasts (who are probably too close to the story) appreciate, will really give MG the chance to reboot in the UK and Europe.
Mind you, perhaps that was always the intention. Let’s hope so!