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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Brand Capital and How Not to Spend It

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Over the last decade I’ve noticed an increasing number of brands willing to cash in on their previously unimpeachable images in the chase for bigger margins.

Sloppy strategies and even sloppier products have dealt manifold blows to companies like Mercedes-Benz (1st gen. A-Class, R-Class and Maybach), Porsche (Cayenne) and BMW (X6, X5 & 6Ms and 5 Series GT). For now, these brands can manage it. Decades of superb, focussed products have established strong brand perceptions that will take a few cheap hits (although I’d argue that Mercedes is really starting to try the patience of even the mainstream car nut with products like the new E-Class).

There are other brands, however, that can’t afford to play so loose and free with their brand capital and Aston Martin is a prime example.

Virage_VolanteIt wasn’t so long ago that AM was known for producing poorly built, unreliable bruisers that were just a little bit vulgar. Anyone remember the Virage/Vantage series? Sure, they had a glamourous history on their side but, fundamentally, the products were overpriced, underdeveloped and, by all accounts, pretty rubbish.

Under Ford’s stewardship the come-back started -stylistically at least- a mere 16 years ago with the launch of the eternally lovely DB7 and continued a few years later with the rough-and-ready Vanquish. Aston’s full return to form as a complete package, however, only came in the mid-naughties with the stunning DB9 and V8 Vantage.

The Rapide and V12 Vantage, although same-ish (they’re really getting their money’s worth out of that VH platform) , have continued the run of beautifully engineered, delightfully detailed and drop-dead gorgeous products that the market expects of an illustrious luxury car builder. The brand capital accounts, as a result, had been starting to look healthy after years of having been scraped bare.

Then in March this year something went horribly wrong and almost 4 months later, the calamity continues. With the Lagonda concept and the Cygnet, Aston Martin has begun cashing cheques with a wanton abandon that their delicately balanced brand capital books may not easily sustain.

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Sadly, time has not lessened the impact of first seeing the Lagonda at the Geneva motor show. Nor has my quiet rage subsided over the comments made by Dr. Uli Bez as he positioned the vehicle, perhaps unwittingly, as the perfect choice for the third-world wealthy looking to crush everything before them on their (unpaved) road to self-gratification.

Revealed when the industry was at it’s lowest ebb, I and many others at Geneva were looking for products to raise the spirits. In the absence of anything truly inspiring, the Lagonda managed to subsume our collective hopes for the future under a tsunami of cynical, tasteless opportunism.

Clearly I wasn’t alone in my thoughts as blogs and print media alike exploded with scathing commentary on how il-conceived the 4-seater, V12-powered SUV appeared both from a design perspective and in a broader societal context of the global financial crisis. All of a sudden, a brand that could do no wrong (occasional poor component choice aside) had dealt itself a serious blow at a time when they could least afford it.

Knowing that the criticism of the Lagonda was taken so poorly within Gaydon, I had expected that Aston Martin’s next move would be designed to smooth things over. I had hoped that their next concept would deal with the question of their long term survival with a touch as deft and as elegant as the shoulder line of a DB9.

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What we got instead was the Cygnet, a re-nosed, re-trimmed Toyota iQ.

Billed as an exclusive “luxury commuter concept” for Aston Owners, anyone who’s switched on to impending EU Co2 regulations will see that the Wildenstein-esque Cygnet is also a convenient way for Aston Martin to reduce their astronomic fleet emissions average, thereby minimising any financial penalties.

While I take no issue with the concept of a smaller, fuel-efficient Aston Martin, surely to be badged as such it needs to be a true concentration of the marque’s luxury design sensibilities and individual take on engineering integrity.

The iQ is without doubt an amazingly well engineered, superbly packaged car. Yet having recently spent time driving one, I can tell you that it doesn’t live up to Toyota’s premium incantations, let alone posses the hewn-from-solid feel that one expects of a brand like Aston Martin.

Aston says that the interior, while keeping the same architecture, will be re-trimmed in luxurious materials and fitted with Aston’s Emotion Control Unit key. Given the wilfully odd, low rent nature of the iQ’s cabin, I’m picturing an effect akin to trussing Susan Boyle in Dior couture and banging 2 mil of Chopard around her neck… Aston Martin luxury has been reduced, it would seem, to a celebrity make-over.

As far as the driving experience is concerned, if you stick an Aston Martin badge on the front of a car people will immediately form a perception about it’s driving qualities. While no one will expect the Cygnet to set alight one’s desire to bang along back roads (that’s what your DB9 is for) the buzzy, bouncy, boomy iQ is almost totally at odds with the driving gravitas we associate with Aston Martin.

Issues of design and dynamics aside, my biggest gripe with the Cygnet is that it seems a little bit pretentious, a value one normally doesn’t associate with the kind of Aston Martin owner looking for a small city car. It’s also more than a little bit disingenuous. V12 Vantage-esque hood vents on a 1.3l city car? Really?

As Joe Simpson points out over at MDB, many Aston owners purchase a Smart, or perhaps even a Mini, for reasons extending beyond their city-friendly proportions. These classless cars also enable them to keep their considerable wealth on the down-low as and when required.

At the end of the day, this is not a question of whether the iQ is a good car or bad (for the record, I think it’s marvelous, interior aside) but simply a question of branding and whether Aston Martin should be trying to make a Toyota their own, or perhaps co-branding the iQ instead.

If the rumours are to be believed, Mini will nail the uber-luxury downsizer market in short order by teaming up with the Colour & Trim team from BMW Group stable-mate Rolls Royce. In this instance, Mini is being sprinkled with the stuff that makes a Rolls Royce wonderful, not being made over into a Rolls Royce-a-like-lite.

Fundamentally it’s still a Mini, badged as a Mini and people will have Mini expectations how the thing will drive and feel, thus maintaining the separation in values between the respective brands. It’ll also be possible for it to be indistinguishable from a regular Mini from the outside, making it’s true nature known only to the person who counts most at the top end of the market: the one on the inside.

If Aston Martin simply provided a superb refit of the interior and, at the very most, some subtle badging for the exterior of the Toyota iQ they would allow their owners the luxury of downsizing while keeping it discreet. They’d also be protecting the Aston Martin brand from being diluted by a driving experience that is far removed from that of all their other vehicles.

Of course the question of whether this iQ “in association with” Aston Martin would satisfy the EU lawyers as a Co2 reduction method is beyond my current realm of knowledge, but at least Aston’s brand capital would remain relatively unscathed.

But better than shopping in Japan, why not go local and tap into Britain’s legendary engineering ingenuity? A collaboration between Aston Martin and Gordon Murray, with his phenomenal T25 city car, for example, would provide the design integrity, local provenance and branding compatibility that would make loaded, car-buff connoisseurs swoon.

Ultimately, Aston Martin should be applauded for exploring ways in which they can satisfy a rapidly developing market for pint-sized luxury. I just wish they hadn’t played such a risky gamble with their most valuable asset: their brand capital.

[Images: Aston Martin Cygnet: Toyota GB PR, Aston Martin Lagonda Concept: Drew Smith, Aston Martin Virage: Wikimedia Commons, Susan Boyle: Bert Kommerij under Creative Commons]

Category: Adventures in Brand Extension, Branding, Car, Car Culture, Design, Design Strategy, Eco, Premium, Sustainability, Things I Hate

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9 Responses

  1. Robin Brown says:

    ‘the perfect choice for the third-world wealthy looking to crush everything before them on their (unpaved) road to self-gratification’

    Sums up so much that was wrong about the Lagonda.

    I think the story about Bez and Toyoda’s love-in at Le Mans, where they supposedly formed the idea, says it all about the rarefied nature of the social and business circles these people move in.

    It’s hard not to conclude, following the Lagonda and Cygnet, that AM top brass have rather lost it. Good concept, wrong car.

    For the record, Bez is stated as saying this has nothing to do with emissions (they think they’ll get an exemption), though by my reckoning selling the Cygnet as an Aston is the only way it would qualify as an AM car according to the EU legislation.

    Whichever you look at it, it’s all rather baffling.

  2. drewpasmith says:

    Hey Robin,

    Thanks for your learned input!

    If emissions have nothing to do with the project, there’s even less reason to play so lose and free with such a discordant brand.

    Baffling indeed!

  3. Casey says:

    Thought you were dead or something~ How have you been?

  4. Casey says:

    Need your new phone number~~~

  5. Brian DR1665 says:

    I agree and think you nailed it on this one. To be far less eloquent, this “just ain’t right.”

    Understanding their position backing into the wall with the emissions regulations coming down the road, I can appreciate their need to develop some kind of solution, but why, oh, why are they choosing a cheap Toyota as foundation of their foray into fuel efficiency? It’s a travesty.

    I was thinking about it this morning and thought, why don’t they use their clout to resurrect MG? Furthermore, if Aston Martin was previously owned by Ford and Ford had/has a stake in Mazda, surely there could be connections to tap in pursuit of something Miata-based, right?

    To me, that would make the most sense. The Miata is loved ’round the world for it’s drive quality and the interior has been improved over the years as well. I don’t see it as being too much of a stretch to re-skin a Miata in and out and have not only a smaller car with better fuel efficiency, but potentially a wildly popular avenue into the Aston Martin fold.

    Just my thoughts. If you’re in the mood for a bit of lowbrow, I photoshopped up a couple other cars I feel are on the same level as the Cygnet. Particularly, a Konigsegg Camry CCX Hybrid, a Ferrari 42GT, and a hideous Lamborghini Cobalt SV.

    It’s not that I have anything against Aston Martin or Toyota. I just don’t think this is the best idea in the world. http://dr1665.com

  6. The Face says:

    Take your points, and as always it’s well argued. I believe however, we are navel-gazing a little too much. The bottom line is that AM have suffered brutally at the hands of the global economic crash; a 28% drop in sales (2008) – an additional 20% fall predicted for 2009…20% staff reduction earlier this year. So, Dr. Bez has some damage limitation to perform.
    It is a risky strategy. Handled well (and I guess we’ll have to wait and see the execution), I think it could blaze the trail for the paradigm shift needed in the industry..I mean – Ferrari are building a hybrid! – You’re absolutely right about brand taking years to build and days to ruin, but I think we’re going to be challenged by many different brands evolving, some beyond recognition, simply to survive.
    you know my take! ;
    http://faced.wordpress.com/2009/06/29/from-a-cygnet-to-a-swan

  7. Massimo says:

    schizophrenic…what else
    … schizophrenic…is the AML Management
    schizophrenic…the market
    schizophrenic…is this automotive industry that to make money in short terms mess with the long one.

    Honestly how would you call it…

    In the time given of 4 months AML has passed from an HORRID, out place, out of brand, out of economy, ENORMOUS LAGONDA SUV…to a little, a small car rebranded IQ…a little bird…

    PURE SCHIZOPHRENIA…

    They tried to sell that big —-, and they coundn’t so now they try with a little one.

    Shows little respect to your customer, to your possible client, to the market in general…

    I am imagining a story:
    AML marketing calling existing client asking them to buy a 5 meter car, big and with a 5.3 engine…and the customer eventually saying:”AML i trust you”. And after 4 months they receive a call saying: “umh well you remember the 5 meter car, well actually is just a little IQ, with a new grill and a 1.0 engine”…

    Brand capital: not existing,
    history: not existing
    respect: not existing…

    I said already if this is the future of automotive industry
    (KIDDING THE MARKET,KIDDING THE PEOPLE),
    this Automotive industry deserve to FAIL…..

  8. Mujammil says:

    I almost fell off my seat when i heard about that. Couldn’t they launch a separate brand to preserve the Aston one (assuming the new fixed costs would be absorbed by future revenues)?

    Truth be told, car manufacturing is an economy of scale. The more units they produce, the cheaper the relative costs (up to a point and only if they’re actually sold on).

    That’s not happening right now for Aston. Not long ago, any rich Cityboy could stroll into their Park Lane shop and buy a couple of those babies on his Centurion card. Times have changed now. The sentiment’s Pessimistic.

    AM need to address the short term to stay in the long term – hence the diversification. They need to shift more units because they ain’t gonna get any cash from the government.

    What did Darwin say? It’s not the strongest nor the most intelligent that survives. It’s the one’s most adaptable to change. (paraphrasing)

    But a rebranded Toyota iQ for twice the price?? They really ARE cashing in on their brand.

  9. […] as mad as ever with this cynical little marketing exercise (my previous take on the car is here). For proof of how off-zeitgeist the little Toyota-in-ready-to-wear is, Steve Cropley over at […]

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