Hemel Hempstead Business Ambassador Vanarama was founded in 2004 by Andy Alderson. The company originally traded as Autorama, providing credit leases on pickup trucks to small businesses and individual workmen, but this naturally progressed into providing leases for vans – hence the change of name, which came in 2006.
The business went through various highs and lows over the next seven years – Alderson had to make 12 staff redundant during the credit crunch – but by 2013 it had evolved into an online broker, connecting tradespeople to van leasing companies.
It’s a hard market to stand out in, dominated as it is by small, local companies, rather than national brands. So in a bid to reach new customers and future-proof the brand, Alderson decided to take a different tack.
The company claims it became the first credit broker to advertise on TV in 2013, when it ran an advertising campaign with Sky Sports, Sky Sports News and Talk Sport radio. The advert itself, set to Dean Martin’s ‘That’s Amore’, unsurprisingly caused a significant increase in the number of inquiries on the company’s website.
But it was Vanarama’s next move that would prove decisive. In 2014 the company became the title sponsor of the National League, the two highest divisions of non-league football and the fifth and sixth levels of the English football pyramid.
‘In terms of the key market, it was absolutely right on target,’ says Vanarama’s COO Jo Elms. ‘It exposes us to lots of small businesses, who are looking for pickup vehicles.’ In other words, van drivers tend to like football and the sponsorship exposes the company to thousands of ‘fans with vans’ each week. It is estimated that a combined average of 45,000 fans attend games in the National League (top division) weekly.
As well as having the brand splashed across stadiums, official match balls and kits from Tranmere to Torquay, as the deal includes league naming rights, the company gets further exposure every time the ‘Vanarama National League’ is mentioned.
Vanarama won’t disclose how much it paid for the privilege, but for a company of its size the risk was substantial, as was the reward. The company says turnover doubled in a year and quadrupled within four years, reaching just under £40m in 2016. Profit has grown tremendously too, tripling since 2014 to £4.5m as the platform reached scale.
But this rapid expansion has presented its own problems.
‘Part of the challenge was that nobody really quite knew what the impact would be. You can have a plan B, C or D up your sleeve, but when the reality of that bites it means all hands on pump,’ says Elms.
Extra recruitment was required, as was a ‘streamlining’ of processes. As a result the company has invested heavily in technology and developing its own in house tech team in order to automate the process.
Some of the in-house products include AI chatbots to help the customers find vans more efficiently.
What does the future hold?
The sponsorship deal was extended for a further three years at the start of the current season (taking the company’s sponsorship to over six years) and for now Vanarama’s immediate priority is to continue growing its market share.
In 2018 it launched Motorama – essentially Vanarama for cars – in an attempt to target what the company saw as a growing gap in the market.
But what happens when the sponsorship deal ends? Is the company worried that the brand might suffer if it moves away from football?
Elms is optimistic: ‘The one thing that the combination of the sponsorship and the TV has given us is a brand presence, which I don’t think any of our key competitors will necessarily be able to hold their hands up and say they’ve got.’