Advertisements brought Honda Motors back on track

London, February 6:

When Honda met Wieden + Kennedy, it was hardly an award-winning start. “We are the Nike of the car industry,” Honda UK announced, amazing the London office of the independent American advertising agency with a comparison to its legendary client. Nike was at the forefront of technical innovation in its field, with a strong corporate credo, knockout marketing and an ultra-cool image; the perception of Honda in Britain co-uld not have been more different.

“I knew nothing about them and didn’t want to,” says Wieden + Ke-nnedy creative director Tony Dav-idson, who waves his arms around frequently, “I thought ‘we are not going to work on that piece of business’ when they said the ‘power of dreams’ was the mandated endline. The power of dreams sounded like ‘the ride of your life’.”

Honda cars were well-engineered, reliable and dull. Back in 2001, all of Britain thought so; the advertising said so. “They built se-nsible cars for people heading for retirement,” says Kim Papworth, Davidson’s fellow creative director, who is more of an arm folder, “I think we are now in a much different place.”

In an era beset by a profoundly uncertain mood, the confident partnership has produced some of the most memorable advertising of the decade, from a tiny cog starting off a chain reaction of 85 car parts to unveil the Honda Accord, to animated animals, a folk song and the idea of positive hate to sell a diesel engine.

The first advert, Cog, was filmed in two long takes and caused a worldwide sensation in 2003. Such was the buzz, it led to the unprecedented event of CNN International showing the full two minutes in a news story. The second advert, Grrr, won the top award, the film grand prix at the Cannes International advertising festival last year.

Although some in the industry see the latest work, Choir, in which a singing group perform all the sounds of the new Honda Civic, as off the boil, this is the most crucial advert of the entire Honda series.

Back in 2001 things were so bad for Honda that when they advertised, Toyota sales rose. Papworth and Davidson, sitting in a room in a basement room at Wieden + Kennedy covered in white squares full of scribbled ideas and stuck-on yellow notes, say the secret of the success of the past five years seems to have involved a large amount of trust.

At the start, Wieden + Kennedy told the car company to take a deep breath and not focus advertising on their products for three years. It had to advertise itself. Honda agreed. It could afford to take a long-term view because a towering event was looming. The new Civic was coming in 2006, was aimed at the European market, and built in Swindon. It had to be a success. And with the release of the Choir advert, marketing efforts have reached a crescendo. The success of the car is of paramount importance to the company.

So have the ads worked? Sales of new Honda cars rose by 47 per cent in 2002, before Wieden + Kennedy’s first major TV advertising campaign appeared, in 2005. At the same time, the money Honda spent on advertising space fell by 37.5 per cent.

Papworth and Davidson have been at the heart of the Honda/Wieden + Kennedy marriage from the beginning, supervising creative staff, tweaking ideas, suggesting outlandish proposals readily accepted by their client. If Wieden + Kennedy did not get Honda then, they do now. “When you go to Japan and meet some of the people that worked with Honda, it’s bleeding from them,” says Davidson, “It’s fantastic. It’s like Honda oil dripping — it’s just wonderful. You can see him in them, and his passion.” But their success is due to translating Honda’s peculiar brand of reverent corporate fundamentalism to a wider British audience for whom it is of passing interest.

Soichiro Honda once admitted to seeing a model-T Ford leaking oil when he was eight years old. “I got down on my hands and knees to smell it,” Honda said, “It was like perfume.” Wieden + Kennedy slapped the quote into a print advert alongside a bottle of perfume labelled Honda.

They paint a picture of a very accommodating client interested in advertising innovation, willing to run two-minute adverts against industry wisdom that they are not on air often enough to lodge in the minds of audiences.