ANYONE WHO HAS a liveried fleet driving around the country knows it plays an important part in sustaining the company’s brand. Clean vehicles, ‘How’s my driving?’ stickers and perhaps even uniformed drivers all help send a message about the corporate values that have been so carefully nurtured over the years.
But what if the fleet could do even more? What if the fleet could almost be the brand? Sound improbable? Consider Eddie Stobart. A Cumbria-based haulage business that dates back to the 1970s, it acquired a reputation for good service as its lorries – each sporting a girl’s name (the first one was called Twiggy) and driven by a smartly uniformed employee – trundled along our motorways and A-roads. Soon, families started ‘spotting’ Eddie Stobart lorries when British rain and motorway traffic made ‘I spy’ just too boring to play for a tenth time.
The company says that anyone driving on the UK’s major roads will pass an Eddie Stobart vehicle, on average, every 300 secconds. That’s not surprising, given that there are more than 2,200 tractor units in the fleet, and it clearly does wonders for brand recognition. There’s even an app to help Stobart spotters and a TV show for those who need to get out more; Eddie Stobart: Trucks & Trailers is in its fifth series and is reported to attract more than two million viewers (yes, it’s on Channel 5).
All of this may seem very nice but not terribly relevant to what is fundamentally a business-to-business brand. Ordinary consumers do not tend to be users of Eddie Stobart’s services (apart from London Southend Airport, which Stobart owns). But there is a very real financial payoff. Two, in fact.
The first is that the Eddie Stobart brand is valued in the company’s balance sheet at £60m. That figure is actually more than twice as much as the £27m net carrying value of the fleet itself. Moreover, there’s a note in the annual report that the real value has been independently estimated at about three times the amount in the books. (The valuation in the accounts came about when the business was acquired in a reverse takeover by Westbury, which gave Stobart its stock exchange listing.)
The second payoff is hard cash: Stobart Group actually makes a few quid out of the British public’s unfathomable love of green, red and white lorries. In the group accounts is a subsidiary called Eddie Stobart Promotions, a company that makes money from things like the ‘Stobart Fest’ trucking event that attracted 15,000 people – to say nothing of the 18,000 enthusiasts who pay about £18 a year to be in the Stobart Members’ Club. And don’t forget the replica scale vehicles (from £10 ‘toys’ up to £140 ‘collectors’ models’). The promotions business made a handy £168,000 net profit last year on a respectable revenue of £822,000. Not huge, perhaps, in the context of group revenues of £572m, but who would have thought that a fleet brand could be a money-spinner in its own right?
Then there’s Pimlico Plumbers. Anyone who lives in London can’t fail to notice the blue and white vans. Well, the vans might be easy to miss, but their number plates certainly are not. Plates such as BOG1, B1DET, F1USH, W4TER and 701LET are easily spotted and invariably raise a smile.
Pimlico Plumbers was started in 1979 by Charlie Mullins, who left school at the age of 15 with no qualifications. About 23 years ago, he bought the ‘personalised’ number plate DRA1N, for about £6,000. It was a huge investment. “I wondered if I’d gone off my head when I purchased it,” Mullins tells Financial Director. It certainly cost more than the van he put it on. Today, valued at about £100,000, it’s still worth a lot more than the Volkswagen Transporter that wears it.
Mullins now has more than 130 plumbing-related plates. They cost him hundreds of thousands of pounds, but have been valued at more than £1m. His aim is to put one on each of his 165 vehicles. The thing is, they’re so memorable that customers apparently ask for particular plumbers by the number plate. “Honest to God,” says Mullins. “They’ll say, ‘I didn’t get the fella’s name but I know he drove DRA1N.’ When it first happened, I was so taken aback. It wasn’t until I got the first one on the road that I realised the impact it was having and the recognition it was getting.”
Our phone call with Mullins is interrupted as he sorts out a box-load of model vans – all with plumbing-related plates – that are to be auctioned off for a kids’ cancer charity. “The plates bring a lot of humour, they bring a lot to charity, and – as far as marketing goes – I don’t know a better advertising tool,” he says. “I think it works well because it’s a great connection to our business and because of the British sense of humour.”
Neil Phillips, the founder of PerfectReg.co.uk, has sold Charlie Mullins more than 100 number plates over the years. “If you get something that spells LOO or BOG, it sticks in the mind,” Phillips says. “It’s been his best form of advertising. And you haven’t got to pay any rental cost on it.”
The search facility on Phillips’ website is good fun: if you’re in the estate agency business, for example, and want your fleet of cars to boost your brand, you can get A63NCY, SU12VEY or SAL3S, all for less than £5,000 each. The only thing is – none of them cause a schoolboy smirk quite the way Pimlico Plumbers does with A1EAK.