Ling Valentine is the enigmatic founder of LingsCars.com, a car leasing site that has been called “one of the best websites ever made” by The Independant yet “quite possibly the worst & weirdest website on the internet” by The Metro.
A controversial and disruptive figure that is both adored as well as scored, LingsCars has been compared to the “automotive equivalent of Ryan Air” by trade publication FLEET NEWS in 2006. Furthermore, later on in 2007 the syndicated trade publication, Automotive Management referred to Ling in a harsh and even more undesirable tone as “a parasite, a deranged internet freak, and a blatant publicist”.
Despite the relatively hostile comments from the in-trade publications, Ling has been cited by critically acclaimed marketing writer Seth Godin (Renown Marketer and Best-Selling author of Purple Cow and Tribes), who name-dropped Lings Cars as an example of what he calls a “purple cow”, an example business that is remarkable in a marketing capacity.
In this article, we take an in-depth look behind the scenes of the marketing behind LingsCars and gain further insight into the founder, Ling Valentine.
Q: Hi Ling, thanks for agreeing to speak with us! Let’s start off by letting you introduce yourself in your own words?
Ling: I would describe myself as a normal person, but I like to win. So I’m very competitive. I fight like hell to get to where I want to be, so that applies to my business too. My ultimate goal is to be totally financially independent, without having to rely on work time, or income. To be utterly free. I’m not quite there yet, but getting close.
Originally from China, I fought to leave that place, fought to come to the UK (had to fight to get get married in Finland as the UK denied me a visa, the bastards)… and when I beat the Home Office into submission and I arrived in the UK, I thought I could do well running my own business.
Q: So you wanted to run a business when you got to the UK. Where you always a business minded person?
Ling: I have always known I didn’t want to work in a job with a boss and I avoided this by becoming my own boss.
I always had trouble with authority, and got into a lot of trouble in school and in University in China because I refused to comply. That was a massive issue in China where compliance is demanded by the state, but is an advantage in the UK, which is much more liberal and polite.
So when I started LINGsCARS, I refused to follow the rest of the industry and I insisted on a fully online business that was fun, rather than paper-based and miserable. Most other car leasing companies have still not moved on from using paper-based systems since my early days, and although their website offerings have improved slightly, I would still class them as “utterly miserable”.
LingsCars approach to branding is so radically different from its competition that it is somewhat difficult to draw a simple comparison between LingsCars and other car leasing companies.
A true guerilla, Ling prioritises razor-sharp cost control and earned media over expensive overlays such as a car showroom and PPC advertising.
Focusing on personality as a key point of differentiating from her competitors – Ling invests heavily in the individuality of her brand in order to stand out from the crowd in relatively homogenous market.
Q: What guided you to go down the digital path with LingsCars as opposed to a more traditional showroom model employed by most automotive dealers?
Ling: I went 100% digital due to cost benefits, both for me and for the customer. A car showroom is a ridiculous thing as cars become more and more like consumer goods. All cars are OK, these days, and to have the massive overheads of a heated or cooled showroom with the staff, static displays and utility costs is just mad, in my view.
It’s a waste of space and efficiency. A nonsense. Why not pass the savings to customers, instead of forcing them to pay for a posh showroom environment?
Furthermore, Lots of things that I do are hidden and behind the scenes, but are still industry-leading and make the Gold-Standard grade. For instance, all customer conversation is fully transcribed and saved in an un-editable format on our customer management system called LINGO which allows the customer to can view the full history of every word said in glorious technicolour.
No one else in the UK car industry has provided this level of transparency for customers. This means I have to brutally honest, or it comes back to bite me because with our CRM system the customer can quote me to prove I was lying – so I have to tell the truth at all times. Unlike most other car salesmen who often lie and mislead customers.
When it comes to Ling’s Website, the brand positioning is completely different. Even though LingsCars.com has garish and almost offensive design, reminiscent of the worst 90’s design trends, you can hardly say that the site is not memorable.
So when the Metro calls Lings cars “the worst website in the world” In fact, quite the opposite is true. Lings Cars has been proven not only to attract visitors, but convert them too, turning over more than £40m a year! In addition to that, the site also works to attract journalists who blog about her site and often include a do_follow backlink from their high domain authority websites.
Q: I’m aware there is a lot of controversy over your website – personally I’m a massive fan. Could you take me through some of the thought processes you had when designing your website to make it perfect?
Ling: My website, LINGsCARS, nas never been perfect, and perfection is the last thing I want people to think in their heads, when they log on. I wanted my website to be emotional and happy. I want people to put a bit of effort into using it, and to be rewarded when they do. So, I include lots of hidden bonuses, free gifts and a game they can win, and the opportunity to chat (long before anyone else did that). I have full HD-quality live office webcams, and a webcam at my desk, so people can see I exist and I am working away. I create movies and stories, at the moment we parody “Leader of the Pack”, with professional production qualities. It’s excellent!
It’s too easy to fall into the trap of just being acceptable and non-offensive, but I want web visitors to enjoy my site and to leave with an opinion, good or bad. It doesn’t matter that people don’t want a car, because I value their word of mouth recommendations, even if it is just to say how much they hate my style or graphics or whatnot.
Google plays a big part in forcing my website to obey their SEO rules, but apart from that my main concern is that visitors click with a smile on their face, rather than click reluctantly.
In an older video which showed Ling Valentine performing a Q&A session at a digital marketing conference, one audience member asked her if she had ever considered developing a more traditionally corporate looking version of Lings Cars in order to attract a different type of clientele.
At the time, Ling replied quite positively and admitted that she had considered the idea previously. However when we followed up on how this venture had panned out, she had this to say:
Q: In one of your 2008 talks, an audience member asked you if you had considered creating a more traditional website to accompany LingsCars – How did this venture go and does it still exist today?
Ling: This is an often-repeated question from people whose instinct is to follow the herd. I have my website, and that’s it. I enjoy it having character. To create a “boring” version, would be stupid in my opinion, and a cop-out. Sometimes, you just have to do what you believe in.
I really think that going down the route of constantly making things more and more “acceptable” or “polished”, leads to the most asinine and bland result. The website that is universally acceptable will offend no one, and be utterly devoid of any character or emotion. But HEY! no one will moan about it, as they’ll be asleep.
Human beings are flawed characters, and websites should have flawed characters too. Nothing that is considered great is ever universally accepted. From Churchill to the Eiffel Tower, to the Angel of the North. Trying to please everyone all the time, is a disease that leads to banality and boredom. Get a life!
I think that Ling’s response ultimately boils down to an important message about consistently striving to act authentically within your marketing. Considering that Ling’s zany character has been a large component to her PR strategy over the years, it’s easy to understand why she feels that toning her brand down will ultimately be detrimental to her business.
It should be clear by now that LINGsCARS stands out as something completely different in comparison to most brands within the automotive sector. A large part of the differentiation relies on Ling’s ability to craft masterful PR campaigns that focus on hacking “earned media” and capitalise on the hunger of journalists to write compelling stories.
One of the more bizarre examples that showcases the absurd essence of LingsCars is her fully branded replica nuclear missile truck. Ling used to parked this truck alongside the A1 to promote her website, before it was removed by the local council.
Q: Ling, how did you acquire your nuclear missile truck & what possibly drove you to do such a thing?
Ling: Ah, my truck… a beautiful thing with a 6.0 V8 petrol engine. I needed a promotional tool at the time (mid 2000’s) and thought “why not?”.
There was a war on (Iraq), and some of the Colin Powell “evidence” of Iraqi intent, were grainy photos of Zil trucks like mine, parked in Saddam’s army compounds. So I spoofed them. I put my completed nuclear truck in Tony Blair’s constituency, next to the A1, and pointed it west, towards Bush in Washington DC. That was clear evidence that Tony Blair has weapons of mass destruction ready to strike the USA, in my eyes.
The UK Government went mental with me (it must have flagged up on US satellites), local planners failed to budge me, eventually John Prescott (deputy PM) rang me up and yelled, “move that fucking truck”. Eventually after a year, the law was changed and I was threatened with a criminal offence, so at that stage I moved it rather than be arrested. Heh.”
This isn’t the first time Ling has been known for her crafty PR moves. In fact, Ling first became established within the mainstream public consciousness in 2008, due to her appearance on the BBC’s Dragons Den Television Program, which saw her become a household name.
Lings appearance on the show was noted to be a memorable one as Ling turned down an investment offer by Duncan Bannatyne following a dispute during equity negotiations. Even though it appeared that Ling walked away from the show empty handed, Ling states that appearing on Dragons Den was a massive contribution to her business.
Ling: Ten minutes on prime-time BBC, plus all the endless repeats on Dave, plus all the associated publicity was worth more than £250,000 in advertising. Two million viewers on the night gave my business a massive immediate boost.
With such an effective, low-cost guerrilla marketing play, it was clear that Ling had an interesting and novel approach to leveraging PR for marketing results. We asked Ling if she had any final advice for any budding entrepreneurs who wished to emulate her results.
Ling: My advice would be “stop worrying and get on with it”. What’s the worse that can happen? Even nowadays, I still have to fight, as I am secretly black-listed by some big names in the UK motor industry (they should be ashamed), just for being different. Many people in the UK motor industry see me as a threat and subsequently hate me and do anything to stop me succeeding. Fuck them.
A few lily-livered moaners complain to you? Well, my attitude is “fuck ’em”. No one dies, the world doesn’t stop turning just because a website is a bit lively. But, few people have any faith in themselves and they struggle to acheive mediocrity (a disease, on the web). So, get on with it and break some web barriers!