February 20, 2012

Case Study: How to fuck up a brand - Aston Martin

I am making a bold prediction here: Aston Martin is going down. Not overnight, but it will die a slow and steady death. Why? Take a look at Exhibit A) and Exhibit B). Then pause for a moment and ask yourself: What is wrong with this picture? Trust me, you don't have to be an Einstein to figure this one out.


1 - Aston Martin DB5

2 - Aston Martin Vantage

3 - Aston Martin One-77

Now take a closer look at this:


1 - Aston Martin DB5

2 - Aston Martin Vantage

3 - Aston Martin Cygnet

 Notice the difference? Exhibit A is part of what I refer to as Aston Martin's "Brand Equity Portfolio (BEP)" BEFORE and Exhibit B is part of the BEP AFTER 'The Cygnet'.

Aston Martin introduced this abomination in June 2009, apparently due to some emission law guidelines bla bla bla... basically to have one car in their portfolio that is eco-friendly to help save the planet etc.p.p. Got the message. Thank you. Well, we all understand that the world needs alternative resources, renewable energy, eco friendly transportation alternatives etc.. It's pretty much a no-brainer.

What we don't understand - or I in particular - is how the people at Aston Martin could make such a horrendous mistake in mismanaging their brand portfolio. Adding a pimped up Toyota IQ to the Aston Martin family and slapping an Aston Martin badge on it, simply to satisfy law makers? Really? Couldn't think of a better solution? Couldn't take a look at history and the competition and learn from other car makers' mistakes?

Volkswagen (VW) learned the hard way when it finally had to put an end to its CEO's passion project - the VW Phaeton. Volkswagen (translated: the people's car) sold 1,433 units in 2004 and only 820 in 2005 in the U.S. What was the problem? Well, 'the people's car' had tried to enter a segment where people don't drive 'the people's car' any longer, but spend a whole lot of extra money for 'luxury cars', such as the Mercedes S-Class, the BMW 7 series or the Audi A8. Why would you spend the same amount of money for a VW if you can drive a Mercedes?

Lesson learned: know your brand's sweet spot. The zone you are successful in. The range you can rationally and emotionally justify towards your audience and consumers. How far can you successfully 'stretch' your brand?

Aston Martin has been trying to go the opposite way, by going small. Law and business decisions aside, this was a stupid move from a Brand Management perspective. Why?

By having introduced this fugly piece, Aston has forever changed its carefully built and composed Brand Equity. Just take a look at the long history of Aston Martins (Wikipedia link below). There has been such a consistent story over all these years that is almost second to none.

Many car makers do it: badge engineering - taking one platform, and use it to build multiple vehicles on top of it. Quite often they get away with it, because the brands are low profile and the cars live in the 'use' vs. 'want' category. But taking a Toyota IQ, and trying to sell it as an Aston Martin? Really? That's messed up. I have no respect for anyone who allows themselves to be fooled by it. Just look at it:

Price tag: 25,000 Euro - 30,000 Euro ($35,000 - $42,000)

As compared to: 13,000 Euro - 17,000 Euro ($18,000 - $24,000)

Now you might laugh about this, but trust me. Ask a hundred guys on the street what they associate with Aston Martin, and I bet you a hundred dollars "James Bond" will be one of the 10 attributes you will hear most often. You can safely add him to the Brand Equity Portfolio. Now do me one favor: imagine him in a Cygnet. Do I have to explain this any further?

"Cygnet" - what? What a fun exercise it would be to do a reverse associations test to see what comes to mind. Here are my attributes: cyborg / androids / terminator / computer / spy wars ... geez... what the hell were they thinking?

How does something like this come to live? Who makes these decisions? Who are the people behind these fuck-ups? I don't know. I can only guess. Here is what I think: It all comes down to either non-existing brand management, incompetent brand management, delirious brand management, or management dictating brand management (as was the case with VW's Ferdinand Piech - who's quite a brilliant business person, but he got the Phaeton completely wrong).

As was the case with Aston Martin, the brand was sold off in 2007 by Ford to a joint venture company for 479m GBP (for more see Wikipedia link). New ownership, new management, new marketing, new egos... everyone wants to leave their mark. Bang. There you have it.

Simple. Super simple. Set up an 'Aston Martin Holdings' company, which houses the 'Aston Martin' luxury sports car brand, and the newly created 'Cygnet' luxury mini cars brand. Aston Martin remains what it always has been. Its Brand Equity Portfolio remains intact. And the new Cygnet brand kicks off with the Cygnet C1, followed by the Cygnet C2, C3 etc., predominantly focusing on highly populated urban areas such as Singapore, Hong Kong, New York etc. Done. No harm. No foul. Everybody happy.

Whatever happened at Aston Martin, it will go down in Marketing textbook that haven't even been written yet as one of the major brand fuck up stories of the 21st Century. And it pains me to witness the demise of one of my favorite car brands of all times.

Related links:
Aston Martin's website
Aston Martin on Wikipedia
Volkswagen's Phaeton Story


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