In recent years, Jaguar Land Rover has acted not so much as a bellwether of the fortunes of UK PLC, but as the national corporation’s vanguard, leading the way in uncharted profit and loss waters, seeking out the clear-water channels to unseen revenue streams, while navigating the rocky headland of loss where other companies founder (possible overkill on the metaphor but not as much as this constant “perfect storm” bandied about by the media, which JLR has apparently been hit by).
Like the UK, the good ship JLR is sailing into increasingly turbulent oceans, where a flapping government, tripping between ignorant announcements on the positives, then perils, of diesel, has potentially done more damage to the automotive market than Brexit will. And now diesel, China and Brexit have combined to hit the company hard, resulting in another 5,000 job losses announced this month, mostly in marketing, weirdly.
So how bad is it? If JLR is the litmus paper for Britain’s fortunes, we all need to know the answer. Well, JLR is horribly over-exposed to diesel engines with 90 per cent of its cars running on the stuff; China, its biggest market, isn’t growing as expected, and Brexit stands to wipe out the frictionless trade across borders which is so vital for the car industry’s “just-in-time” procurement processes.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But it’s going to be fine. Why? Because the car industry mastered the art of Darwinism decades ago: compete, survive and reproduce. It is the god of innovation, of disruption, of diversification; it has mastered natural selection. JLR constantly monitors micro and macro socio-economic trends, it employs global futurologists, it gets in bed with other industries such as fashion, music and cycling, and it conquests competitor sales.
Since Tata bought JLR from Ford, it has sharpened and smartened its products. Victoria Beckham came on board for the launch of the Range Rover Evoque, Ellie Goulding did likewise for the Velar, and brand ambassadors have included Bear Grylls and Andy Murray. Land Rover fortuitously finds its outdoorsy, off-roading model range at the centre of the current British zeitgeist for young, clean, healthy living lead by ad-land “adventure-seeker” consumer profiles.
As soon as Land Rover completes the switch to electrification, the brand will be back on a winning streak, because there’s nothing out of place about its model range and brand ethos - witness the inexorable rise of the expensive Dubarry wellington boot as proof of the popularity of premium mud-plugging products. Everyone wants a manageable slice of the countryside these days, even if they want to transport it back to Kensington High Street. And for those who don’t, pimping companies such as Overfinch can give you smoked-aluminium grills, blacked-out windows and low-profile tyres to urbanise your Landie - what was the preserve of pheasant shoots became the status symbol of an underground music scene in the early 2000s, for reasons too tenuous to explore, but much of which must be blamed on InstaGram and YouTube heroes posing with the green badge. Land Rover realise they can't ignore the aggressive urban styling, so have developed their Special Operations department to do the bespoke design work themselves.
As for Jaguar, the forecast is less clear (dealerships must accommodate both brands, and the pain is shown in the well-worn joke, “Jaguar is the price you pay for a Land Rover dealership”). No one wants to buy saloons any more (what future for the XE, XF and XJ?), leaving the F-Pace and E-Pace SUVs (the former damaged by cannabilised sales from the latter, and both under pressure from success of the electric I-Pace version). Yes, Jaguar is no longer a cravat-and-cigar Terry Thomas outfit, but neither does it have the SUV heritage of Land Rover, and SUVs are all anyone buys any more (although it does have Ian Callum as its head designer, one of the best in the business). Thirty-somethings want an Evoque; they don’t want an E-Pace. There’s street cred in the former, none in the latter. The best Jag can do in these gloomy times is ditch the internal combustion engine asap and go all-electric, along with a subscription models for its cars, to recapture the imagination of eco-conscious millenials and their monthly budgets.
Put it this way: if Volkswagen bounced back from Dieselgate, stronger than ever, with a streamlined, more profitable company and lessons learned, then this “perfect storm” should be but a trifling breeze for JLR.