What have David Beckham, Prince William, Princess Kate and Kate Moss got to do with the British car industry?
Funnily enough, everything, especially if you subscribe to the theory that it’s a case of when, not if, the Chinese-owned car makers start to prevail throughout the global industry. Even so, discovering that fact at the Bao Shan MG dealership on the outskirts of Shanghai was a surprise.
The visit, arranged, by MG, was designed to get a flavour of this booming car market; what I had underestimated was just how strong a part Britishness and heritage plays in persuading Chinese buyers that MG is the brand for them.
Here was a large dealership, part roomy, pristine and impressive, part looking like someone had thrown together a parking lot on a particularly unkempt piece of ground. Given it was next door to a Bentley dealership and up the road from similar Ford, Audi and Kia dealerships, the ramshackle outside jarred with the ordered calm inside.
But here was the rub. This MG dealership sold 1000 cars in 2012, and was now selling 35 cars a week. Inside, by the entrance doors, were handwritten whiteboards with customers’ names on. This week’s collections? Nope, a long list of the cars that were leaving the dealership today and tomorrow. No wonder the outside space looked like an especially cramped parking lot…
Then, inside, I was confronted by the aforementioned Becks, Wills and Kates, plus images of Big Ben, Union Flags and the like. Further down the scale, an MG 6 sat in pride of place bearing a homage to its British-sourced What Car? security award. Glass cabinets were filled with black and white pictures of MG triumphs from years gone by. Videos of the annual MG Live! festival at Silverstone were playing. If it was British, it was deemed to resonate. To my complete shock, they were even selling the MG6 BTCC edition here, the antics of Jason Plato seemingly capturing the imagination back in China in a way that marketeers back here can only dream of.
But this wasn’t just marketing pony. Out front, MG had pulled in a happy customer, Summer Ying. Aged 31 and an advertising executive, she proudly presented her modified MG3, all big wheels, big rear wing and, erm, a lot of pink vinyl. It wasn’t to my taste, and as you'll see in the happy snapped gallery above it probably isn’t to yours, but that wasn’t the point – MG’s personalisation programme knows no limits, and all combines with its emphasis on Britishness and heritage to grab customers.
“MG is a cool brand, it is fashionable, like the British,” said Summer, presumably forgiving the deeply unhip case study stood in front of her. “UK fashion is absolutely the thing to follow, and MG has that. I like Hunter boots, Barbour jackets, and it is those kind of images that I associate with MG and Britain. Beckham has played in China, Kate Moss is a fashion icon and of course we know the royal family.”
But for all the pink wheels and love of branding, Summer was no push over. “Before I bought my car I studied MG’s history,” she said. “I know much about how the company was founded, the records that were broken by its cars and the history of some of its sports cars. Other car companies don’t have that.”
Of course, one happy customer doesn’t signal a revolution. But I’d wager that if any Chinese car company has a chance of success then it’s MG. Owned by the SAIC powerhouse, it is proving adept at marketing its UK roots to Chinese buyers in a way that other home brands simply can't.