Public Relations

The AA changes direction

Consumer insight is now shaping AA's business strategy and advertising campaigns

When Cheryl Calverley, head of marketing at British motoring association The AA, spoke at last year’s Festival of Marketing, she said ‘insight is really about what happens when you ask why and it’s about deep human truth. It’s the job of a marketer.’

It is this insight that underpins the AA’s newest business strategy, a departure from the traditional image previously maintained by the association.

‘It all starts at the very beginning, who we’re talking to,’ says Calverley. ‘We did a big piece of qualitative work with a political messaging agency to understand attitudes and values and really get much better insight into what’s going on in people’s lives and what matters.’

And what matters was exactly what had changed, Calverley found. It was far less about the car, and far more about modernity. ‘We’ve been talking to the freedom-seekers, which is a much more modern audience than we’re used to,’ she explains. ‘We were traditionally talking to a Jeremy Clarkson-esque car-loving figure. We understand that the audience still love driving but in a much more modern way.

It meant that the AA, which once billed itself as the fourth emergency service, had to learn how to communicate the value of the breakdown service without actually focusing on the distressing cause of them

‘It’s less about the engine and the spanners and much more about the music, the conversation and the inside, rather than the outside, of the car. Once you’ve got that insight, you ask what matters to those people and those people are the guys who are cracking on with life. They’ve got plans, the family organiser, they’re the ones sorting out Legoland on the Saturday and the school run on the Tuesday and at the same time trying to hold down a job. So what really matters to them is that their life stays on track and plans are not derailed.’

Today’s audience, it seems, do not want to think about breakdowns, the bedrock of AA’s business. It meant that the AA, which once billed itself as the fourth emergency service, had to learn how to communicate the value of the breakdown service without actually focusing on the distressing cause of them. The AA considered the brands that are most valuable to this modern audience, such as Netflix and Amazon, which make life easier and are only a finger click away.

‘Those brands are really cool,’ asserts Calverley. ‘We talk about everyone having a smartphone but it’s not for entertainment but because that’s what keeps life running. The question is how do we start to be more of that brand and keep their life running, rather than talking about what happens when life stops.’

It started to address this quandary with its most recent advertising campaign. A father is driving with his young daughter to the airport as she happily belts out Tina Turner’s Proud Mary in the back. A breakdown causes a slight halt in their journey, but an AA mechanic gets them back on the road with no interruption to the little girl’s performance.

You don’t buy the AA; you become a member of the AA

‘We talked a lot about the creative and the fact that it didn’t miss a beat. We always focused on the breakdown and it was a very big decision, as we built the creative, not to dip or stop the music, not to have that breakdown moment. This is about not missing a beat. The breakdown is nothing more than a slight distraction from your journey,’ says Calverley. The AA also took steps to ensure that the campaign reflected the audience it aimed to represent. ‘We were very keen to talk about a modern family,’ says Calverley.

‘We didn’t want to shy away from families and kids but equally it’s not about being saccharine or the damsel in distress or the mother with three children looking harried. It’s a dad driving to the airport with his daughter. You don’t need to wonder about whether he’s divorced or married, it doesn’t matter; it’s a modern family.’

Of course, a lot has also stayed the same. The AA has more than three million members, who are more likely to be mature and steady rather than younger, less experienced drivers who might not have registered the importance of paying for breakdown cover.

‘The most important thing about the audience is that you need to have a car, broadly care about your car and be on top of things and sorted enough to have breakdown cover. And you need to value loyalty and quality,’ adds Calverley. ‘You don’t buy the AA; you become a member of the AA. We have a lot of benefits when you first join and those benefits improve the longer you stay with us.

‘We do everything we can to make sure that we always fix the member before we fix the car. That’s written through all of our experience. It’s the first thing written in all of our handbooks as we train our mechanics. You genuinely are a member to us and you should feel that with the AA.’

Surprisingly, recent reports that the number of car breakdowns is falling do not concern the AA. ‘Ultimately we’d like to see the end of breakdowns,’ reasons Calverley. ‘We would like to stop breakdowns from happening. The City tells us that breakdowns are in decline and we go Brilliant, that’s what we’re to do. We’re here to make sure your life runs smoothly. We’re not here to make sure that when you breakdown, we rescue you.’

The AA is looking to diversify its offer, however, and has introduced services such as Car Genie, a smart device that plugs into your car and keeps an eye on how it is running, letting owners know of any faults. But the AA isn’t a company that is afraid of change.

‘The very heart of this is much more operational and technically minded than it is creative,’ says Calverley. ‘The commercial team understands the power of what we’re trying to do, the power of insight and targeting and segmentation. Bringing them on the journey hasn’t been difficult but actually it’s a journey they sent me off on. They said We need to transform this brand and we need you to do it. For me, it’s just about making sure we’ve got the robust data, that we can actually leverage it so it’s not just words and boxes and esoteric concepts.’

‘It’s dragging a very pipe and slippers brand out of its sleepy comfortableness into a much more modern organisation that delivers a much more modern service. You understand consumer insight, you have a very clear strategy, you know what it is you want to be and decide what sort of body language you want to have. It’s almost like the easiest way to be creative is to decide what you’re not going to be. And once you’ve got a very clear vision of who it is that you are, what your body language needs to be and who you’re talking to, it’s very easy to be creative and stretch your wings. We’ve only just started. It will be a long journey to be a really fresh, surprising brand.’

As the AA begins its journey, it hopes to avoid any nasty potholes.