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One of the world's best-known carmakers, the Honda Motor Company, Ltd., had popularized economy and midsize cars for decades. In 2003 the company struck out in a new direction when it began selling in the United Kingdom a version of its popular Accord powered by a newly designed diesel engine. The advertising campaign to promote the diesel engine (the Accord also came in a standard gasoline-engine model) was even bolder than the product itself. Titled "Grrr," it was a masterpiece of counterintuitive thinking and presentation.
The campaign was designed by Wieden+Kennedy London and consisted of a television and cinema spot backed by radio, print, and Internet advertisements. It broke on September 24, 2004, in cinemas in the United Kingdom. The spot featured a retro 1960s neopsychedelic look, complete with flying diesel engines, a rainbow, animated bunnies, and a folk song sung by radio humorist Garrison Keillor. The song also backed the radio commercial. The point of the spot was to show that a new, modified diesel engine had been designed by Honda, one that was cleaner and less noisy.
The "Grrr" campaign and the television spot in particular won numerous awards in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere. The television spot won the Epica D'Or at the Epica Awards (which recognized creativity in European advertising); four gold British Television Advertising Awards, including TV Commercial of the Year (2004); the Grand Prize at the ANDY Awards in New York; two gold and eight silver D&AD (Design and Art Direction) awards, including the first D&AD gold for music; Best in Show at the One Show Awards; a Titanium Lion (for the radio spot) and the Grand Prix at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France; and a Gold Clio and the Grand Clio.
While the Japanese automobile maker Honda enjoyed modest success in the United Kingdom, innovation was always the watchword. In the early twenty-first century that theme intersected with British and European drivers' growing preference for diesel-powered over regular gasoline-engine autos. For Honda and its chief designer, Kenichi Nagahiro, the diesel engine was a new adventure. Although Honda had been producing hybrid cars (which used an internal combustion engine with an electric motor) since 2001, the company had yet to produce a diesel engine, and Nagahiro professed to despise them. (Honda had sold diesel-powered Civics, but the engine was produced by Isuzu.) The diesel market, however, was growing fast in Europe and the United Kingdom in the early years of the twenty-first century, and Honda, a company noted for the high quality of its engines, had no choice but to follow the trend or lose customers.
Nagahiro's dislike of the diesel engine was in fact one of the motivating forces behind his desire to make a quieter, cleaner one. The model he and his team came up with, the 2.2i CTDi, was placed in the Accord in 2003 (and later in the CR-V and the FR-V, Honda's compact multipurpose vehicle) for distribution throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the more diesel-conscious European market. In a January 2004 article for the London newspaper the Sun, Ken Gibson wrote that in 2003 diesel-powered auto-mobile sales in the United Kingdom "increased to 710,000—29 percent of the market—with diesel converts driving everything from superminis to executive cars."
The Accord itself had been reintroduced to consumers in the United Kingdom and Europe with Honda's previous advertising campaign, "Cog." This Rube Goldbergesque television spot, which followed a chain reaction of Accord parts, beginning with ball bearings and including tires that roll uphill, was itself critically acclaimed.
The "Grrr" campaign focused on the increasing number of diesel auto drivers in the United Kingdom as well as on those willing to make the switch to a diesel-powered auto. In continental Europe the percentage of diesel drivers was even higher, with some pockets reaching as high as 70 percent. The television—and to a lesser extent radio—spots were also aimed at aging baby boomers, who presumably had families and for whom the TV spots' look and sound would have a humorously nostalgic feel. They were also geared toward a younger generation with families and disposable income, but who would view the spots as retro. The Accord, into which the 2.2i CTDi diesel engine was originally placed, was considered a family car, as was the popular CR-V sport-utility vehicle, the second Honda to be powered by the 2.2i CTDi.
In addition to competing in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe with other Japanese carmakers, Honda was considered on a par with the low-end BMW models and the high-end Volkswagens. But as more than one car critic noted, the diesel engine took Honda to a higher level. In the Sun, Gibson wrote, "The Honda Accord is everything good about diesel power—the only surprise is that it took Honda so long to develop the model … [T]he 2.2 litre [engine] in the Accord shows they have been fine tuning an exceptional engine that sets new levels of excellence. In fact the Honda power unit is so good only top-of-the-range executive diesels from Mercedes, BMW and Audi can compete with it." Edward Stephens of the Birmingham Evening Mail declared the new vehicle "a diesel that performs just like a petrol engine in terms of acceleration, quietness and responsiveness … [T]his diesel is certainly one of the best—if not the best—in its class."
Nevertheless, Honda started out well behind other carmakers in the race to attract diesel car buyers in the United Kingdom and Europe. Audi had introduced its Avant in 1998 with support from a campaign that included a print ad that depicted a crushed pink rabbit with a drum on a road (a reference to battery manufacturer Energizer's well-known "Energizer Bunny" commercials). The ad read: "Audi TDi. Keeps on going. No other diesel looks like it or lasts like it." Volkswagen introduced its diesel Passat soon afterward, while BMW had preceded both.
A number of factors contributed to the style and message of the "Grrr" campaign and of the television spot in particular. These included chief engineer Nagahiro's disdain for diesel engines, the whimsy of the "Cog" campaign, and competitor Audi's 2003 campaign that featured animation in its television spot (though the spot advertised a gasoline-powered auto). The difference with "Grrr" was that Wieden+Kennedy took what some media critics described as a counterintuitive route.
The "Grrr" spot, with its 1960s retro look and feel, invoked that decade's idealism, but with a twist. The message, as filtered through Nagahiro's experience, was that hate could be a catalyst for change. In a June 2005 article in Adweek Mae Anderson quoted Sean Thompson, a senior copywriter for Wieden+Kennedy, who admitted, "When we were asked to do an ad for launching the new diesel engine, we got really interested in this hate thing, how hate can push you forward. In tandem with that, we started thinking about a song, because a song is happy—so what if we wrote a song of hate?" In fact, throughout the animated spot the word "hate" was spelled out numerous times as visual reinforcement while smoky, dark diesel engines flew through the air and assorted feel-good animals such as bunnies, birds, and fish gamboled about. Backing this was a song sung by radio personality Garrison Keillor, who crooned: "Can hate be good? / Can hate be great? / Can hate be good? / Can hate be great? / … Hate something / Change something / Make something better …" By the end of the spot the old, dirty diesel had been transformed into a thing of beauty: a quiet, clean, efficient diesel engine, the 2.2i CTDi. Meanwhile Honda had expounded a new concept, "positive hate."
THE DIESEL ENGINE
The diesel engine got its name from its inventor, Rudolf Diesel (1858–1913), who received a patent for the engine in 1893. The prototypes for his engine ran on coal dust, and he even produced a demonstration model in the 1890s that was fueled by peanut oil. By 1897 Diesel had built an engine that ran at a theoretical 75 percent efficiency.
The main difference between a diesel engine and a gasoline engine was that a spark was not required in a diesel (hence, no spark plugs). In the early diesel models air compression within the engine's cylinders caused the fuel combustion. The early diesels were large and were used only in heavy machinery, ships, and trains. In the 1920s an injection-pump design was implemented in the diesel engine. This advance was responsible for smaller engines, making them viable for automobiles. The first auto manufacturer to employ a diesel engine was Mercedes Benz in the 1930s. By the end of the twentieth century more and more drivers were recognizing the efficiency of the diesel, which in turn led to more innovations on the engine.
The version of the spot that launched the "Grrr" campaign on September 24, 2004, in cinemas throughout the United Kingdom was 90 seconds in length. The television version was edited into 90- and 60-second lengths and was supported by radio, print, and Internet advertising. The idea of "Grrr" was to build on the success of the "Cog" campaign. This had been Honda's manufacturing strategy as well. While "Cog" reintroduced the Accord to the public, "Grrr" went a step further by introducing a diesel-powered Accord model as well as the diesel CR-V sport-utility vehicle. The ingenious part was that the spots were not about the cars at all. The focus was completely on the new diesel engine that Honda offered; the automobiles were therefore passively advertised. Because prospective buyers were already aware of the qualities of the Accord and CR-V, what they needed to be reassured about was the fact that Honda's proprietary diesel was an improvement over competitors' engines (and the Isuzu diesel used in the Civic). By concentrating on what was really new, a Honda-built diesel engine, the "Grrr" spots provided that reassurance in a positive yet quirky manner.
The "Grrr" campaign was an excellent follow-up to "Cog." If anything, it surpassed its acclaimed predecessor in the number of advertising awards it garnered. As a tandem, the two campaigns boosted sales of the Accord and, by extension, Honda autos in general. Total sales of the Accord went from 34,879 in 2003 to 51,235 in 2004, an increase of 46.9 percent. Total Honda sales throughout Europe in those two years increased from 217,473 to 255,721, a jump of 17.6 percent.
More remarkable was what the "Grrr" campaign accomplished on its own. The rise in sales of diesel-powered Accords was astonishing. In 2003, the year the diesel-powered Accord was introduced, 518 were sold. In 2004, the year the "Grrr" campaign came out, 21,776 were sold. That figure represented 42.5 percent of all Accord sales. It was almost twice as much as the 2004 sales figure for the diesel-powered Civic (which had an Isuzu engine), which totaled 12,025. On the strength of its success with the diesel engine, Honda went ahead with its plans to produce diesel-powered CR-Vs and FR-Vs in 2005. Honda also announced that in 2004 its manufacturing plant in Swindon had set a production record of 193,456 cars, a 4.75 percent increase from 2003.
With all of that in place Honda predicted a good year for 2005 for its United Kingdom and European market. While the overall market was down in 2005, Honda experienced a 7.8 percent growth in sales that year. This was second only to BMW, which tallied a 9.3 percent increase in 2005. In calendar year 2005 Honda's sales in Europe totaled 285,924, an 11.8 percent increase from 2004. (This was a 31.4 percent increase compared to Honda's 2003 European sales numbers.)
More important, along with the Accord, the CR-V and FR-V, both with diesel engines, played crucial roles in Honda's continued upswing in Europe and particularly the United Kingdom, where Honda was the ninth-largest auto company in terms of sales. A brief, unsigned article that appeared in the Daily Post of Liverpool in July 2005 reported, "Honda has hit 50,000 sales in the UK within the first half of the year—equalling the firm's full year sales figure in 1996. The result has been made possible by a dramatic boost in Accord diesel sales, continuing demand for the CR-V … and the successful introduction of the FR-V."
By the end of 2005 Honda held 4 percent of the U.K. market, a half percentage point behind BMW. Since its introduction in 1995 the Honda CR-V had been the best-selling gasoline-powered SUV in the United Kingdom, so offering a diesel option was a logical step. Commenting on that move in the Daily Telegraph of London, Andrew English wrote, "[It] would be difficult to find a safer, better engineered and more socially and environmentally responsible example than the Honda CR-V … Start up and the diesel gives little indications of its origins, unless you have the window open, whereupon the industrial growl leaks in. In fact there are few occasions when you are aware that this is a diesel other than the occasional turbo whistle and momentary injector rattle. In that respect it's a match for the best German and French units." With a follow-up advertising campaign to "Grrr" in the works, and with new innovations to is diesel-powered autos, Honda remained optimistic for 2006.
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Comyn, Paddy. "New Accord Takes a Power Trip; Honda May Be a Little Late to the Diesel Engine Party, but Their Latest Executive Car Demands Serious Attention." Sunday Tribune (Dublin), February 22, 2004.
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