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‘Advertising without strategy is a vanity project’: Inside the AA’s quest for brand re-evaluation

The AA’s new visual identity, created with design consultancy Elmwood

Once synonymous with yellow vans and roadside breakdown assistance, the AA has been on a mission to redefine itself as a brand relevant “across the driving world”.

Consumers can learn to drive, buy or lease a car, complete an MOT, or take out insurance, all with the AA. However, three years ago, this was not reflected in the public’s perception of the brand, says group brand director Will Harrison.

Harrison joined the AA around three and a half years ago, and notes that qualitative research carried out by the brand around that time found the personality people associated it with did not fit the reality of its offering. People conceived it primarily as a breakdown company, with a personality akin to that of an “old, white English cricketer”, he says.

The brand wanted to be recognised as more than that and emphasise its offering could support consumers at all stages of their driving journey. From speaking to people internally, Harrison found they wanted the brand to be much more “confident” and shout about what it stood for.

A repositioning to reflect all of what the brand offers would allow the AA to reach a much wider addressable audience, he notes.

Brand-building was a key lever towards achieving this commercial goal. When focusing on breakdown services, the AA could afford to be quite short-term in its advertising. Harrison notes campaigns from much of the brand’s breakdown service competitors centre price in their offering.

This wasn’t about thinking advertising first, this was about thinking strategy first, and then thinking how does all of that relate into a tactical output from advertising.

Will Harrison, The AA

However, with the goal of broadening the AA’s appeal, the business could not afford to be focused on performance advertising, meaning a key part of the marketing team’s mission has been to create an effective balance between brand-building and performance.

For a brand aiming to bring to life its services across the world of driving, this is particularly important, Harrison states, adding that some of these key moments, such as learning to drive or buying a car, are “hugely emotive” and therefore lend themselves to brand-building activity.

Having previously been a publicly-held company, since 2021 the AA has been owned by a consortium of two private-equity firms.

Private equity owners have something of a reputation for being profit-led. Pursuit of short-term profits traditionally make it harder to make the case for longer-term brand building activity to investors.

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All businesses are working towards growth and “looking to drive numbers in the right way”, asserts Harrison. He does acknowledge that for private equity stakeholders that goal is perhaps “heightened”.

“There’s a mission to ensure that growth is visible and is maintained,” he says.

His own mission as a marketer has been to convey to the business how brand fits into that objective as a lever of growth, he says, and prove that long-term brand-building advertising is as commercially valuable as short-term price-focused marketing.

Strategy-first approach

Determining a cohesive strategy before doing anything else was a key pillar of the AA winning buy-in for its mission of long-term brand building across the business, including from its private equity owners.

“All of this stuff only lands effectively and is bought into by the business if the strategy is sound and is cohesive with all of the activity that comes after,” he says.

The company set out to determine its what, who and why to set a clear strategy.

The “what” involved setting objectives and determining what the AA was trying to achieve. With that in mind, it was then important to “ensure that mentality was laddered into a master brand marketing approach” and all work was geared towards achieving those goals.

The “who” involved segmentation, which saw the brand look at drivers at different life stages and how it could best reach them.

As for the “why”, Harrison admits that talking about why a business exists can risk sounding “fluffy” but  he argues it is the bedrock of the brand and what customers should care about.

He worked closely with the executive team on researching and developing a purpose statement, with the belief that it should be embedded across everything the brand did.

“I was keen to ensure whatever we agreed was at the heart of what the business stood for, was translated into our brand approach,” he says.

The purpose statement arrived at was “creating confidence for drivers now and in the future”, reflecting the brand’s determination to be more bold in who it was.

It was extremely important for the AA to determine its strategic direction through this work and get buy-in from stakeholders before embarking on repositioning work.

“For me this wasn’t about thinking advertising first, this was about thinking strategy first, and then looking at how all of that relates into a tactical output from advertising?” Harrison says.

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Keeping it simple and reiterating this strategy is crucial to keeping stakeholders on-side and onboard with both long and short-term work, he notes.

“Keep it simple,” is Harrison’s advice to any marketer trying to win buy-in from stakeholders.

“I feel like I’m an internal PR machine… I’m showing them slides they’ve probably seen before and reminding them of the journey we’re going on in a very simple format and linking that to commercial outcomes,” he says.

Another piece of advice for other marketers in a similar position is “don’t be precious”. No business has unlimited budget and you have to be pragmatic about what you can achieve, he says, advising marketers to ensure they embed understanding of the business context into any conversation they have with stakeholders.

Deploying the tactics

Advertising without strategic focus is essentially a “vanity project” Harrison asserts, which may move short-term metrics but do little to drive forward a business’s goals.

Over the past three years, an objective for the AA had been driving its reputation as a brand applicable for all sorts of driving occasions. In 2020, alongside then-agency adam&eveDDB, it launched ‘That Feeling’, featuring Tukker the puppet dog.

Harrison says it was probably the first time the AA had not featured a yellow van in its brand advertising. It wanted to “evoke elements of the Cadbury Gorilla” in the ad, by tapping into feelings of joy and confidence around the brand.

While this ad helped the AA to fulfil its strategic focus of moving away from portraying itself solely as a breakdown service, the brand was still a long way from bringing this to life across all its identity, he says.

The one thing for me is that the AA is positioned as a brand that is there for you, whatever the vehicle, whatever the driving scenario.

Will Harrison, The AA

Once the brand had carried out its strategic work: determining its purpose statement, objectives and getting buy-in from the business, it was then ready to carry out its repositioning.

It carried out a pitch process late last year, led by Oystercatchers, which resulted in it appointing The Gate as its lead creative agency.

The AA and its agency partners carried out research to determine which direction to embark on in its repositioning. A theme that emerged was that the public appreciated the brand’s role in “anticipating drivers’ needs”. The AA is driving future-facing initiatives ranging from utilising VR headsets for learner drivers to having the best digital experience for its customers.

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Out of this, the brand position “Always Ahead”, was born. The position acted as a “galvanising thought” for the brand both internally and externally, Harrison states.

That thought was then articulated into the advertising expression of “It’s OK, I’m with The AA”. Put simply, this advertising platform conveys the “unshakeable confidence” being a customer of the AA brings, says Harrison.

It’s also an expression which is no less relevant for its learner drivers than it is for those using its breakdown services, he notes, meaning it can be utilised across the brand’s services.

Change in a time of change

It’s been all change for the AA over the past few years, as it has sought to redefine the public’s perception of this brand.

While this mission has seen it make internal shifts, it has also been a time of great change externally.

Harrison joined the AA mere weeks before the pandemic and subsequent lockdown hit the UK. For a driving brand, suddenly the lockdowns meant most drivers were off the roads for all but essential purposes.

He admits the AA had something of an “existential crisis” when Covid hit but says the pandemic did provide an impetus to take stock of where it was as a brand.

Harrison describes his time at the AA as having been about “creating change at a time of change”. These include changes within the motoring industry.

The last few years have really seen the take-off of electric vehicles (EV), as ownership of the cars becomes more feasible and attractive to many people.

Before joining the AA, Harrison was a marketer in the telecoms industry. He compares the advent of EVs in the motoring sector to the emergence of 4G and then 5G for telecoms.

He wants to ensure that the AA is at the forefront of changes in the industry like the advent of EVs to maintain its relevance to all drivers. It again forms part of the AA’s mission to be relevant to every driver.

“The one thing for me is that the AA is positioned as a brand that is there for you, whatever the vehicle, whatever the driving scenario,” he says.

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