Five years ago, Honda would have seemed like an unlikely Advertiser of the Year. Nevertheless, Ken Keir, senior VP-Honda Motor Europe, will take the stage at this month's International Advertising Festival to accept that honor, which places the brand alongside previous winners—and ad world all-stars—like Sony, adidas and Nike. Not bad for what "was literally considered an old person's car" in the U.K. five years ago, according to Wieden + Kennedy/London creative director Ben Walker. The perception was: "fairly dull, a bit sensible, very reliable," says Ian Armstrong, who joined Honda in 2003 as manager of customer communications in the U.K. "You bought a Honda because it didn't break down. We had a very 'functional' perception. There wasn't any great deal of emotional attachment to the brand at all, and it was driven by those people who wanted to make that fairly rational choice. We decided that something had to change."
That change became fully public in 2003 with "Cog," the must-be-seen-to-be-believed spot from W+K/London that captured the attention of both web surfers and the ad industry with an amazing display of Rube Goldberg-style precision. While "Cog" was a bold statement—and one that ran a full two minutes—Armstrong (who arrived at Honda after the commercial) says it made perfect sense for the brand. " 'Cog' was less risky if you understand the strategy. It fits beautifully into the idea of talking about Honda's philosophy—'Isn't it beautiful when things just work'—and that is something that's rooted in a core truth. Some people find it risky that we didn't put a car in the ad. We don't see that as being necessarily risky, we just see that as being true to the brand and to what the company stands for. But I do believe that you don't learn new things by just doing the same old stuff. Risk is relative. It depends on how much you want to try and do new things, and I always encourage people to try something new."
"Cog" was heavily favored to win the Grand Prix in Cannes that year, but lost out to an Ikea spot, "Lamp," from Crispin Porter + Bogusky. "Cog," however, was no fluke. Honda and W+K captured the Film Grand Prix (and a Titanium Lion) in 2005 for "Grrr," an animated musical on themes of diesel engines and hate. Then, last year, Honda bagged Gold Lions for the sound effects spectacle "Choir" and the epic "Impossible Dream." Honda now sits alongside Guinness and Stella Artois as a brand that reliably produces great advertising in the U.K.—and regularly rakes in lots of awards. "I don't subscribe to the negative view of awards," Armstrong says. "Awards are really important to the people who win them, because they provide them with some motivation and they encourage them to do better. Advertising awards get a lot of criticism, because the traditional response in any client organization is, 'I'm not worried about awards, I'm worried about the business performance.' " Thus far, he's been able to have it both ways, since Wieden's award-winning ads have correlated nicely with sales. Armstrong says you can "choose a metric" and he can cite an improvement. Awareness is up. Sales volume is up. Dealers "are seeing more people through their doors than ever before," with 20 straight months of net profit gains.
As for what has made Honda and Wieden's relationship so fruitful, he admits there's "not a simple answer. What we have is a very powerful relationship, where those guys really understand our business," he says. "They just get it. We also have a fascinating intellectual challenge in the U.K., because we have to change consumers' perception of Honda from being dull, sensible and reliable into something that's much more cool and much more interesting. That's quite a challenge, and I think people rise to that—certainly Wieden + Kennedy has risen to that." Wieden creative director Michael Russoff suggests, "We're both independent companies with very independent spirits, and independent companies are think freer." In particular, Russoff says, "everyone at Honda has always been a great judge of knowing whose job is whose job and where to give people the freedom they need to make something a bit special. If you're on top of something all the time, you don't give anyone the chance for surprises to happen, and I think Ian comes from a tradition of Honda marketers who are very instinctive but know where to leave some gaps for us to fill."
The agency's most recent efforts include an ad and a series of web shorts featuring Asimo, Honda's humanoid robot, touring five museums in Berlin. Like "Cog" before it, "Museum"—directed by Gorgeous Enterprise's Peter Thwaites—might leave viewers with the suspicion that special effects were involved. Russoff insists there was no trickery. "Having tried to get a performance out of a robot, I can tell you that he really does exist." More recently, Honda coined the concept of "Hondamentalism" with a commercial, directed by Anonymous Content's Mark Romanek, in which engineers are seen struggling to get near a fierce red light seemingly emitted by a Honda logo. Two weeks after the spot launched, "hondamentalism" returned nearly 50,000 results on Google. That's a nice anecdotal data point for Armstrong's "web noise" metric, although he cautions that Honda has not fully shaken off its practical image in the U.K. "People don't change their minds about brands overnight," he says. "These things take time, and we're still in the middle of the journey here."