Cheryl Calverley Steers AA Out Of Its Comfort Zone

The head of group marketing of the British motoring association has focused the brand’s efforts on creating smooth journeys for modern drivers where “the breakdown is nothing more than a minor interruption.”

Cheryl Calverley Steers AA Out Of Its Comfort Zone

by Nicola Smith

Posted on 09-06-2017

The AA’s head of group marketing, Cheryl Calverley, is spearheading the organisation’s new brand positioning as it moves away from its pipe-and-slippers image towards a more modern company that makes driving enjoyable and seamless. In the run-up to her talk at the Festival of Marketing, Calverley talked about how she employed a political segmentation company to tap into selling promises, how she learnt that its customer base was not so much anxious but conscientious, and why driverless cars don’t pose a threat. This summer the AA rebranded and is “moving away from the nuts and bolts of roadside issues, to focus on being a problem-solving brand.” What prompted this rebrand?

Calverley: The business has been quite a comfortable pipe-and-slippers brand for a long time but, in the last three or four years, it has been floated and received huge investment, and there is a real passion from the team here that the brand can be much more than it is.

We were presented with the challenge of how to take this strong history and huge brand love and trust, and develop it into something that really matters to people. That is how the rebrand was born and, in terms of taking it forward, it was a fairly easy conversation.

People engage with brands who do the things that they want them to do, and people want to have really smooth journeys. If we move away from talking about cars and engines and, instead, talk about making people’s journeys flow and ensuring that time in the car is as enjoyable as it can be, people will engage with that. What was your starting point for the rebrand?

Calverley: When I arrived at the AA, I asked if someone could give me access to the folder containing the research and strategy. I was told that one didn’t really exist. They were a good solid breakdown company growing at 0.5% a year and that was it. So I had a blank sheet of paper.

I started with consumer insight and segmentation and moved on to understanding what motivates the segment and the messaging around that. We built a big segmentation driven by attitudes and values, and we worked with a political segmentation company rather than a classical data-driven company on the basis that what we sell is promises—people pay their money at the beginning of the year trusting that if they ever need us, we will be there to fulfil the promise. The other people who sell promises are politicians so we thought we would learn from them.

That was really valuable. It gave us a much deeper, richer, attitudinally led understanding of people’s feelings about their car, breaking down, and making life run smoothly. What findings did you unearth from your research?

Calverley: The key thing was understanding why people are with the AA and how society is changing.

Our membership includes lots of older people who have a long tenure with us, but we also have lots of younger people who share the same values—they really enjoy driving and they believe in loyalty and membership, something which is growing these days, fuelled by the rise in subscription services. These people aren’t particularly interested in looking under the bonnet. They are more about the inside of the car, the journey, the music, and the conversation. What people enjoy about driving has changed. No longer do people put their gloves on and cruise the open road—it is about putting on Spotify and chatting to the kids as you travel.

We realised we needed to talk about what is great about being in a car and driving, as well as what they need from us, which is our membership and loyalty. But we needed to do it in a much more contemporary and relevant way for the modern driver. How did you become that problem-solving brand?

Calverley: We had always previously focused on the moment of breakdown—we would talk about being the fourth emergency service, which is the point where things have gone wrong. We have moved away from this to talking about the journey, with the breakdown itself nothing more than a minor interruption that we solve quickly and seamlessly. We have articulated this in our communications with the concept “never miss a beat.” Our latest ad, the singing baby, illustrates this.

We are also developing our product set in that space. We have just launched Car Genie, which predicts and prevents breakdowns, and we have other products in the pipeline which will make sure people’s journeys are guaranteed to go smoothly even if they do break down. What particularly surprised you about how consumers felt about your brand?

Calverley: We went into it assuming that our members were less confident, but we actually found that they are people who are confident and know the right thing to do is to be a member of the AA. It immediately shifted how we talk about things. We used to talk a lot about what happens if things go wrong, and now we talk about how we can make sure things go right. How did the activity of your competitors, such as RAC, inform your rebrand?

Calverley: I always have a policy that, if you’re the leader of the pack, you always look in front of you, not behind. We are the leader in terms of quality of product and quality of our thinking, strategy, and pipeline, so we don’t spend an awful lot of time looking behind us.

We watch what RAC do, and we see if there is anything we can learn, but I think they are rooted in a different consumer target to us. I do wonder whether they will see the light because they must be reflecting on the fact that they have a positioning which is probably a little too old fashioned for where the market is going. But I don’t spend a lot of time looking at them.

Green Flag, on the other hand, do some interesting stuff in the breakdown market, which is different. I don’t think they have the scale of ambition we have, nor have they got the kind of capability or products we have, but, in terms of understanding a more modern family audience, they are probably much stronger than RAC. : What role is digital playing in your marketing—I have read that you have concerns over its validity and role in brand building?

Calverley: I have put digital plans together over and over in my career and I have never been able to see the impact on brand building, despite trying in many different ways.

I think digital works as part of an activation and talkability campaign, so I use social to drive brand and amplify the flavour of a campaign, as well as to support PR activity but, in terms of buying display placement to encourage reach or accelerate awareness, I have not seen it work. We have stepped away from it fairly deliberately. Where do you see the biggest opportunities for growing the AA brand going forward?

Calverley: I think the opportunity is to reframe breakdown—stop talking about breakdown and start talking about an ongoing membership that helps you manage your personal mobility. I call it that because you will always have a personal mobility need, whether you own your own diesel or electric car, or whether you car-share or whatever. Our ambition as a business is to provide the right service to make sure you can get from A to B when you want to, as smoothly and enjoyably as possible. There are a number of technological innovations within the world of motoring, including driverless cars. How is the AA gearing up to address these changes?

Calverley: I don’t think a driverless car is a threat. Driverless cars are still personal mobility and they will still need to be managed. We will evolve to be the organisation that helps you manage that driverless car. We are “platform agnostic,” so we will support any car and any journey. We will just fit around wherever personal mobility goes in the next five, 10, or 20 years, both in terms of technical capability and operationally. Wherever the personal mobility world goes, we will go with it. Finally, you are talking about how to transform a brand using strategic insight at the forthcoming Festival of Marketing. Can you sum up why strategic insight is so important to a successful brand/rebrand?

Calverley: Having ideas is not the difficult part. The challenge in marketing and in business is choosing the right ideas, and that is the reason strategic insight is so important—it is about spending time understanding your market and then commercialising that understanding.

It requires you to take a step back and say: “OK, how many people think that, how much have we got to spend on these products if they think that, and how do we create products that will make money out of that?”

The words “strategic” and “insight” are so important. “Strategic” means I know what my objectives are, and I have a clear goal in sight, and “insight” means not just having an understanding of what the data says, but why.

Cheryl Calverley, Head of Marketing, The AA, will be appearing at the Festival of Marketing, 4-5 October 2017, Tobacco Dock, London:

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