From 'uncle' to 'hip' 35 years on: Proton Saga powers ahead to build brand affinity with younger gen

Nearly 10 months after its brand refresh in September last year, PROTON is marking the 35th anniversary of the roll out of its first car, the Saga. In celebration of the anniversary, a special edition of the Saga will make its virtual debut on 9 July. In the lead up to this, Vijayaratnam Tharumartnam, director, group corporate communications, told A+M in a statement that  the team has begun seeding interesting stories about the Saga and its rich history on social media. According to him, the campaign had organic traction as consumers were enthusiastic in offering their Saga experiences.

"Recently, I tagged a short post about how the Saga got its name on LinkedIn. While I expected a lot of nostalgia from people of my vintage, what I had not been prepared for was the number of much younger people who also seemed to have very strong connections to the Saga. And herein lies the magic, love or hate, every Malaysian has a relationship or at least an opinion about the Saga," he said. 

Tharumartnam added that the Saga represented much more than a fledging car industry. It was the embodiment of a nation’s aspirations and intent and as such, has a special place in the nation’s history as well as in consumers' psyche. Last year, the Saga accounted for 38,114 units , which was a 36% increase compared to the previous year. The name "Saga" was chosen following a "Name the National Car Contest" which garnered over 100,000 entries. The name appealed to judges because the word could be easily pronounced by speakers of any language, and was free of any negative connotations in both Malay and English.

According to Tharumartnam, at least 15% to 20% of PROTON's customers are Millennials and while the Saga used to be known as an "uncle car", Tharumartnam said this is no longer the case as its product line has become more technologically advanced. PROTON has also made efforts to transform its design and quality, and as such, the company expects to see a migration of its demographic in stages, he explained. When PROTON unveiled its new logo and tagline last year, Tharumartnam told A+M then that while the company targets a wide spectrum of consumers with its cars that are priced differently, PROTON's main target audience are those who are young, forward-thinking, energetic and have a sense of pride.

"Our legacy is a double-edged sword. While there are strong feelings for the brand because of nostalgia, there are also misgivings based on our performance in the past. The challenge has been overcoming the latter but our efforts are showing results," he said.

This generation will not be easily taken by marketing, Tharumartnam said. Instead, they are about the brand experience and this includes product, service and perceived brand behaviour. And these are the pillars that we have been building on. 

"The younger generation is clearly more woke. They are extremely connected and expect more than just great products. The ethos and behaviour of a company plays largely in their purchase decisions. I think learning how to engage with them is not so much about a marketing strategy as it is understanding them and their needs," he said. So while PROTON can make attempts to use the right language, or support the right cause, it is more imperative that it ensures some alignment in terms of thinking and dialogue.

Interestingly enough, despite their age, Tharumartnam said it would seem that even this generation has a sense of the Saga’s history based on some of PROTON's research. As such, the team is doubling down efforts on understanding what makes them tick and ways to interact with them, in order to bridge and further the brand journey. 

Just last month, the automotive brand named Roslan Abdullah VP, sales and marketing, as well as CEO of Proton Edar (PESB). PESB is a wholly owned subsidiary of PROTON involved in the distribution of its cars and providing sales and after sales services to customers. His appointment is said to further strengthen the company's team to achieve its long-term goal and objectives. Meanwhile on the agency front, PROTON currently works with GrowthOps, essence-BCW and m/SIX.

A digital-focused strategy

Like many companies, PROTON was also impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and Movement Control Order (MCO). While some companies scrambled to go digital, PROTON was already heavily focused in the digital space well before the pandemic and this strategy will continue in the immediate future, Tharumartnam said. However, he did not comment on A+M's request for the percentage of the budget allocated to digital. "As we plunge further into the digital space, it’s easy to get bamboozled by all manner of statistics. We are really trying to sieve through the numbers so that we can answer the ’So what’ question," he added.

The automotive brand is currently present on Facebook and Instagram. When asked if it is considering tapping into TikTok and Snapchat, Tharumartnam explained that while the team has been looking into these channels, they are not rushing, adding:

The temptation to jump on to new platforms while alluring, can be perilous if you are not possessed of all the facts. We are taking a more organic approach to see whether we can find a brand fit for all these new mediums.

In addition to placing emphasis on digital, PROTON has also seen an increase in online bookings over the last three months. While it can be argued that this was out of necessity rather than choice, Tharumartnam said two months on, the trend has not abated and the brand seeing more activity in this space than before the pandemic. 

"We were one of the earliest to start online bookings and that was actually in 2018 for the X70. We did see a marked increase during the MCO but it was perhaps a matter of Hobson’s choice. The next couple of months as we work our way out of the MCO will be more telling of how much customers have pivoted to the digital buying experience for automobiles," he said. 

Meanwhile, events and showrooms are important in the automotive space but these have been impacted by COVID-19. According to Tharumartnam, the dealership is the centrifugal force that binds PROTON to its customers. As PROTON is not just a commodity, the physical experience is critical. Although the MCO was tough, it focused on recovery and ensuring the safety and health of its customers and employees. As such, it paid extra attention to making its dealership safe with the rigour of strict protocols for the peace-of-mind of its customers. He added that it is also starting to have limited and controlled activities on a dealership level.

The restriction imposed on physical events did not deter PROTON. In May, the automotive company also rolled out its first digital car launch campaign this May. The campaign was initially planned to be part of PROTON’s big launch and 360-launch marketing strategy for X70 2020, but was converted to a digital once amidst COVID-19 and MCO. The virtual campaign included a live-stream car launch on YouTube and Facebook, voice-activated web page to champion PROTON’s voice command feature “Hi PROTON”, direct-to-manufacturer online booking portal with bank integration, and QR-enabled print ads to drive traffic to the website.

Retaining the Malaysian identity despite logo changes

PROTON has undergone six logo changes since its founding in 1983. Its latest logo features an "uncaged" design, showing the tiger's head held high, symbolising PROTON to represent an arrow-head, moving forward to success. Despite the changes, Tharumartnam said one constant has always been its strong Malaysian identity. Every logo has been symbolic of the phase of the brand at that particular time. Tharumartnam explained that in the early years, this was marked by the star and crescent which were synonymous with the national flag, and a statement of Malaysia’s aspirations.

"With the millennium came the birth of the tiger which marked an inflection point for the brand. It saw the arrival of the Waja, which was the first fully in-house designed car. Since then, the logo has seen the tiger morph to a more stylised artifact. In the most recent, it has become extremely dynamic and has a far more forward looking stance, again reflective of the state of PROTON’s trajectory," he said. 

Besides the new logo, PROTON also rolled out a new tagline last year, "Inspiring Connections", which encapsulates the brand's aspiration of utilising technology and mobility to help make human connections that inspire a successful life. While there were changes on the branding front, Tharumartnam said its marketing has not pivoted much strategically. It still relies on organic connections that come from its expanding product line and how consumers react. "The real essence of the refresh is how we approach our products and our customers. This means bringing the best package to our customers and giving them a complete ownership experience," he said.

According to Tharumartnam, 2019 was "a stellar year" for the company as it was the first time it crossed the 100,000 unit mark since 2015. Sales increased by 55.7% and market share increased to 16.7% which is the highest it has been since 2014, he added.

While it would be hard to attribute all of these results to a logo or a tagline, he said it was in a sense a coming out or at the very least a statement of intent. "Over the last three years, PROTON has been working diligently to set a path for the future and the launch of the logo was one destination on that journey. The real returns was the confidence from customers which resulted in very encouraging sales growth," Tharumartnam said. 

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