Holden boss Dave Buttner has officially dismissed talks of a takeover in the distribution of its cars – but in a shock move the former Number One has raised the white flag and admitted it is now a “challenger brand” in the wake of record low sales.
In wide-ranging media interviews this week, Holden executives conceded the company needs to reinvent itself to remain relevant amid changing buyer tastes, and has even vowed to take on “keyboard warriors” who give it grief on social media.
Following CarAdvice’s exclusive story earlier in the week that revealed Mr Buttner told dealers reports of a distribution deal with independent importer Inchcape were “pure scuttlebutt”, Holden has finally come out and issued a formal denial.
“There’s always rumour and innuendo but there’s certainly nothing going on in that space,” said Mr Buttner, the former boss of Toyota Australia who took the top job at Holden six months ago. “We’re not for sale, I didn’t come to sell the company down, I came out of retirement to work with people to rebuild this fantastic brand. There’s been no discussions with me and Inchcape.”
When asked if Inchcape had discussions with General Motors, Mr Buttner said: “To the best of my knowledge there’s been no discussions that have transpired and I keep very close to GM. I speak to them on a regular basis … and I’ve got absolutely outstanding support. I don’t know anything about any discussion at any level. GM are committed to Australia. I have no reason to believe there is any credence in the reports.”
During the same media briefing, Holden’s director of marketing Kristian Aquilina offered a mea-culpa and said the company had “been through the worst” and was ready to get back up off the mat.
“What we are doing from today is taking control of things, getting on the front foot and telling our story,” said Mr Aquilina. “Whilst people have been free to share their opinions on the Holden brand … we have not done a great job of telling the alternative story, and we’ve got a story to tell that is about a Holden that is … reinventing itself as a challenger brand.”
As for “keyboard warriors”, Mr Aquilina said Holden was embarking on a campaign to improve its “social media sentiment”.
“We’ve decided to fight back … with sass and humour and confidence and swagger and take on the many keyboard warriors out there. And there are plenty of them,” he said. “What that’s done has (brought) our fans to life also in support of Holden … where they once stood silent. It’s been a remarkable change. Social media sentiment has moved very positively towards Holden.”
As for its fall from grace – Holden was overtaken by Ford for the first time in 21 years in 2018, its lowest sales result since 1961 – Mr Aquilina said: “The brand that was once dominant is now indeed a challenger in segments that dominate today: SUVs and utes. Getting to this point has been painful … for us, for our dealers, and for every passionate Holden person out there. But we’ve been though the most painful bits and once we embrace this new reality … it’s actually a pretty exciting time. A chance to recast ourselves (but) not in a way that completely abandons our history.”
The marketing boss said the Holden brand has “taken a few hits along the way, some by our own doing, some out of our control. But at the same time that brand remains the company’s most valuable asset”.
“The brand Holden stirs passions and inspires strong feelings, no question,” said Mr Aquilina. “It’s never going to be one of those brands that’s a five out of 10. It’s either one out of 10, or 10 out of 10. It’s a brand that everyone has an opinion on.”
To help boost sales, Holden is about to launch a “rapid fire release” of new television commercials that focus on its SUV range.
“We’re a little late to the party but we have a full set of great SUVs,” said Mr Aquilina. “When you’re late to any party, no-one really knows you’ve arrived because you kind of sneak in.”
As for Holden’s new role as an underdog – it now ranks seventh in the Top 10 and hasn’t been Number One for 16 years – Dave Buttner said: “If you don’t admit where you are, you won’t solve problems. We are now a challenger brand. If we admit that upfront (it means) we do things very differently than if we were arrogant and complacent and thinking we were still number one. It’s never an easy thing to do, but it’s an important first step.”
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling