FIRST impressions, it is said, are everything, and that extends to fleet vehicles where creating the right image through company cars and vans can secure or lose a customer.
Company cars continue to be much-loved by employees and remain a key staff recruitment and retention tool in many business sectors, notably the pharmaceutical and petro-chemical segments. But equally, it could create the wrong impression if a public sector, charity or pub industry employee arrives for a meeting in a ‘flash’ car.
Similarly, argues Andrew Leech, director of salary sacrifice specialists Fleet Evolution, arriving at a potential client’s premises with a clean, prestigious state-of-the-art vehicle will definitely give a better impression of the business than turning up in an old banger or wet and windswept due to the walk from a bus stop.
What’s more, some organisations – London-based estate agents Foxtons is considered the catalyst – have learned from van fleet operators and added livery to their company cars to boost their marketplace profile, while hotels and health clubs are increasingly making the move.
Foxtons launched its liveried Mini fleet in 2001, explaining that the model’s “modern and stylish look” was the ideal complement to its brand with its “classic design, British roots and sense of fun”. The latest design interpretation is the tenth since the Minis were introduced: the “anniversary edition” is billed as a “more classic design”.
A Foxtons spokeswoman says: “Foxtons is renowned for its innovative marketing and strong brand presence, and our iconic fleet of Minis has played an integral part in helping us become one of London’s most recognisable brands. With a ubiquitous presence on the streets of London for the past 14 years, our fleet is a vital part of our brand identity, creating daily recognition and attracting the attention of new customers. Each one of our Minis contributes to the perception of our brand image.”
However, additional costs have to be factored in to fleet budgets, although such vehicles have become a talking point and “businesses have clearly taken the right decision in using their vehicle fleet for marketing purposes”, argues Jon Burdekin, head of consultancy service at leasing and fleet management company Alphabet. “Increased preparation costs and repair costs must be taken into account and residual values on de-fleet need also to be considered.”
Rupert Pontin, head of valuations at used vehicle experts Glass’s, comments: “There is no doubt the owned fleet is going to return a sensible figure when it is at the end of life, and therefore ‘lifestyle’ colours and odd specification levels need to be avoided.”
But, he says, the selection of a few “sensible” options such as leather upholstery, satellite navigation, panoramic roof, metallic paint and perhaps bigger wheels are essential on “certain premium vehicles”.
Fleet Evolution’s Leech says: “Company cars can do so much in projecting the desired image for a business and building a reputation. The right company car can even impress clients and business partners, and possibly be the deciding factor when sealing a deal.”
The role the fleet plays in promoting the right professional corporate image, ethos and values is judged to be so critical that some bosses are willing to spend more than £100 a time on car hire when attending a business meeting, according to RAC Business research.
Smart and reliable vehicles are considered a corporate essential. Jenny Powley, sales director of corporate business at RAC business, highlights this: “The last thing company bosses want to think about when they are trying to make a good impression is unexpected servicing or breakdown costs.”
In recent years, HR company car policy influence has proved powerful in prestige brands, including Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, securing a growing slice of the fleet market.
But, says John Pryor, chairman of fleet managers’ organisation ACFO: “Employees want to be rewarded with the best cars – that demand needs to be underpinned by a cost management focus. Whole-life costs are the bedrock for company car choice and can enable employers to better reward staff with perceived prestige cars as, while they may have a higher list price, they could well deliver total cost of ownership savings compared with cars from other manufacturers.
“However, in respect of corporate image it is a balancing act. Some customers may frown at suppliers’ employees arriving for meetings in high-value cars. I recall a company boss who owned a Rolls-Royce, but drove a Ford Focus when going to meet customers.”
Wayne Millward, fleet consultant at leasing and fleet management provider Arval, says that “undoubtedly the type of vehicle driven and the way that it looks creates a perception so aesthetics have a role to play. Makes, models, technology type and colours can be chosen to portray a certain image and support the overall business brand.”
For example, hybrid vehicles may be associated with innovation or sustainability; premium brands may be associated with quality and luxury; and smaller, sportier models may create a perception of speed and agility.
Colour of character
Arval has undertaken car colour research to highlight what a people’s vehicle says about their personality and character. The resulting mathematical modelling highlights, for example, that red-car drivers “tend to be untidy” and “leave work until the last minute”, while black-car drivers are “creative and imaginative” and white-car owners are “likely to be in higher management”. Equally, drivers of silver cars are likely to be “relaxed” and “satisfied with their lives” and grey car owners “tend to be happier than most”.
Sky News has reported that Barclays’ executive chairman John McFarlane was replacing the bank’s black executive car fleet with silver limousines due to his penchant for feng shui and the colour’s association with harmony and good fortune. However, a spokeswoman said the colour change had nothing to do with the Chinese philosophical system and declined to provide any further comment as to the reason behind the move.
John Webb, principal consultant at the UK’s largest leasing company Lex Autolease, says there is a clear image distinction between job-need and perk cars. In respect of business use, fitness for purpose and lowest whole-life costs were critical, although if those vehicles were liveried, image was also vital as employees were “mobile ambassadors” for their employers.
However, with regards to perk drivers, those employees continued to have a “love affair with their company cars”, though cost, CO² emissions/benefit-in-kind tax, fuel economy and safety were important. That has led to employees’ lifestyles being accounted for in company car policies – notably with the rise in popularity of SUVs and coupes which were banned from many choice lists only a few years ago.
Nevertheless, whatever company cars are driven by employees, they must be reflective of the organisation they are employed by, according to Webb.
“In the public sector, employees will invariably drive a functional vehicle as taxpayers’ money is at stake. Similarly, in the charity sector, it would be frowned upon to provide premium badge cars as it would reflect the wrong image to donors,” he says.
In the private sector, there are “very clear distinctions” between business sectors, explains Webb. For example, in the pharmaceutical and oil and gas industries, company cars are considered critical to employee recruitment, retention and motivation, and therefore image is vital. However, in the pub trade – where landlords are under pressure to cut costs – the wrong impression would be created if brewery staff arrived for meetings in a flash car.
“It’s important that businesses benchmark company car policies across the different grades with peer groups in their respective industries,” says Webb.
Ian Hill, managing director of Activa Contracts, suggests: “Motor manufacturers are aware of the importance of brand image and Skoda is one example of a company that has taken steps to change its own image and that has translated into growing sales.
“The BMW 3 Series is the company reps’ favourite and regarded as the new Ford Mondeo. But companies need to be careful not to introduce vehicles to their fleets that are too exotic or customers may ask questions. Arriving for a meeting in a Rolls-Royce would probably not go down well.”
A Lex Autolease survey has highlighted that the condition of a van reflects the standard of products or service offered by a company. Lex suggests that a vehicle in poor condition could prove costly as many tradespeople use liveried vans as marketing tools.
That’s why London-based Pimlico Plumbers maintains that image is business critical, with engineers driving spotless blue, white and red vans that display the company’s identity.
Engineers at the UK’s largest independent plumbing and service company are issued with a set of guidelines for taking care of vehicles – these will include keeping them in pristine condition and ensuring any ‘dings and dents’ receive immediate attention.
Many vans are also fitted with personalised number plates that further add to the company’s image, with customers frequently asking for tradesmen by the registration of the van – BOG1, LOO3, GAS15, W4TER, F1USH and 701LET are just some examples.
As the vans operate as a ‘calling card’, a spokesman explains: “The appearance of the vehicles is critical to the image of Pimlico Plumbers and that is helping drive business growth.”
Just as Foxtons believes its fleet is image critical, Gnewt Cargo is seeking to change “last-mile logistics” with what is claimed to be the world’s largest single city-based fleet of 100% commercial electric vehicles.
Now using about 100 vehicles and operating in London and soon in Oxford, director and co-founder Sam Clarke comments: “We designed the business around electric vehicles so to use petrol, diesel or hybrid vehicles in any capacity is not in our remit.
Electric vehicles are our greatest asset, our USP. We are 100% electric and always will be. We would not be in business if it was not for the way we differentiate ourselves.”