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Out of road

Could cars be sliding towards banking levels of consumer contempt?
It’s hard to think of a financial instrument that reminds you more of the sub-prime mortgage bonds
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Banks were not always hated. True, they might never have been loved, with their haughtiness and stiff ways, but that did at least translate into a low-key respect and suggest a certain probity. The local manager was a suitably dull embodiment of trust. And when a branch packed up and left town, leaving a pizza restaurant behind in its sturdy former premises, we were surprised to find ourselves missing it emotionally as well as practically.

The slide into negligence was slow – hidden charges, misselling, bloated profits – but the flip to becoming objects of seething rage was sudden and bloodcurdling. Once we knew that even they didn’t understand the complex financial instruments they were trading, and that they were gambling big with our money, the floodgates of loathing were open.

Brave bank marketers, years after the crisis, would commission consumer research and be dismayed by the virulence of the venom. I have seen my fair share of “word clouds” in marketing presentations over the years, but nothing quite prepares you for the bank ones, which look like they might be describing a slave-trading ring: “SCUM” reads the giant word in the centre, bordered by “sleaze”, “greed”, “crooks” and variant insults into the outer margins.

There is an interesting game marketers can play here: who are the next “banks”? Which is the category that has been sliding into the negative side of the approval spectrum and is ready to flip into outright contempt? Sugary drinks, energy companies and mobile providers are perennial contenders. Political parties: of course. But the sector my money is on is cars.

As with the banks, the slide from grace has been gradual. Used-car salesmen never had a great reputation but the glamour and excitement of new model launches helped us draw a veil over that. And cars had steadily become more reliable, efficient and kinder to the environment.

Or so we thought. The revelation of cheating on emissions by Volkswagen – then Millward Brown’s fifth most trusted global brand – was a jaw-dropper. The question became whether the practice was general or contained. Seasoned motoring correspondents are sceptical: engineers in the automotive industry are promiscuous, moving where the money takes them, and few doubt that those coming from VW would not have brought their “special expertise” with them.

More recently the perceptual slide has steepened with the increase in model recalls, which are currently the highest on record (see panel).

The scene of the final crash in confidence, though, is likely to be the precarious crossroads where new car sales meets consumer credit.

Auto brands routinely make far more profit from their finance arms than they do from manufacturing vehicles, and the financial engineering they undertake is as elaborate as anything in the metal.

That complexity reached its zenith in the personal contract purchase agreement (PCP). Is it a hire-purchase model? Not exactly. Is it leasing? Kind of, and kind of not. Is it some sort of part-exchange deal? It is, with bells and whistles in abundance.

What makes PCPs attractive for consumers is the low headline price of the car: they can drive away a new BMW for less than the cost of a used Ford. But that is achieved through a range of complex variables including an estimate of the future trade-in value of the car, maintenance tie-ins and mileage limits.

The Financial Conduct Authority is set to investigate, looking at accusations of failure to properly explain the arrangements to consumers. But that is as likely to spring from ignorance as negligence, with salespeople unable to fully grasp the myriad implications of what they are selling.

It’s hard to think of an instrument that reminds you more of the sub-prime mortgage bonds: the ability to own more than can strictly be afforded, the deferment of true cost, the byzantine complexity. With 80% of new cars now sold this way, the industry and its customers could be storing up problems for the future.

Banks may never have been loved but cars are. Symbols of freedom and adventure despite the everyday reality of traffic and fumes. Mobile extensions of our personalities. But that high esteem will make the fall, if it comes, so much harder.

Will automotive marketers soon find themselves commissioning consumer research and reeling at the virulence of the venom? Staring at hostile word-clouds and wondering where it all went wrong?

It’s hard to imagine it could ever get that bad. But then, back in 2007, it was hard to imagine what would come in 2008.

Auto woes

Record recalls
In the first quarter of 2017, auto recalls soared to a record high, affecting 38 vehicle brands, covering more than 100 models. Over 90% were in the luxury or high-end sectors.

Airbag crisis
More than a third of injuries were caused by faulty airbags, which have been a serious issue for over two years. In the US, exploding Takata airbags led to the largest and most complex safety recall in history. The crisis is expected to continue due to a global shortage of parts and the common sharing of components across multiple manufacturers.

Fire denial
GM has been hit by accusations that it delayed recalling its Zafira people carriers for seven years after issues with its overheating air-conditioning system resulted in hundreds of vehicles catching fire.