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Brand Management

Aston Martin’s Brand Strategy Abomination

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Once in a while, a brand strategy is announced that is so stupid, so antithetical to the principles of brand management, that it takes your breath away. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Aston Martin Cygnet.

As the picture above reveals, this is a very different kind of Aston Martin. For starters, it’s not very powerful, given its 67 horsepower engine – that’s 353 horses short of the V8 Vantage. Nor does it look like an Aston Martin.

Not surprising, really, given that it is based on a Toyota platform – and not just any Toyota. The Cygnet is based on its smallest four-seater, the iQ city car.

According to Aston Martin’s chief executive, Dr Ulrich Bez, the Cygnet will ‘apply Aston Martin design language, craftsmanship and brand values to a new segment of the market’.

Dr Bez, have you lost your mind? Toyota is a fine company, but it makes Japanese, mass-market, economy cars. You run Aston Martin – the most English, exclusive luxury brand ever to have existed.

Reports suggest you will soon be producing 5000 Cygnets a year, making it your company’s number-one production model. Your own definition of Aston Martin’s DNA is a combination of power, beauty and soul.

How can a car with a lawnmower engine, which, to me, looks like a punch in the balls, and is designed in Tokyo, possibly fit within your excellent prescription of the brand?

Can you be the same Dr Bez who, barely a year ago, said: ‘There is nothing in my five-year-plan that allows for sharing with other makers. We have our own technology and structure and our own platform. We do not have any reason to go and change’? Because last week, you said exactly the opposite when you announced that the Cygnet was ‘made possible with the support of an organisation of Toyota’s stature and capability and the intelligent design and perfect city car package of the iQ’.

There are two possible explanations for the brand abomination that is the Cygnet and the 180° change in Aston Martin’s corporate strategy.

Maybe it has run the numbers for 2010 and is coming up short. The downturn in luxury-car orders, combined with the massive fixed costs associated with being a British car manufacturer, might mean that Aston Martin has to quickly find funds from more accessible line extensions.

If it really is short of cash, though, it should follow Ferrari’s strategy of licensing multiple brand extensions for products outside the automotive category. Such additions make instant cash but, unlike line extensions such as the Cygnet, do not damage the equity of a brand in its original category.

Alternatively, Aston Martin may be moving quickly to avoid new emission standards soon to be enforced by both the EU and US authorities. Car makers will soon be penalised if their average CO2 emissions exceed a certain level.

Competitors such as Ferrari (part of Fiat) and Lamborghini (part of Audi) can use their house of brands architecture to share the excessive CO2 production of their sports cars across a range of smaller, more environmentally friendly vehicles. Aston Martin’s single brand structure offers no such opportunity, but if half the cars it sold were Cygnets, with CO2 emissions of 99g/km, it could still sell its existing models, which emit four times that, without the need to develop hybrid engines.

Whether the dilemma is economic or environmental, Aston Martin cannot afford to dilute its brand and desecrate its heritage with the Cygnet. There must be another way.

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10 Comments

Neil Edwards on July 13th, 2009 said

Excellent comments. Different proposition + different target audience = different brand. If Aston Martin wants to expand in this way it should create a new brand. By all means transfer the values, but preserve the integrity of the existing brand at all costs.

andy on July 13th, 2009 said

Don’t get me wrong – I’m NOT defending this, but there is one key point I think you missed: the Cygnet will only be sold to people that have a proper Aston Martin.

Itai Talmi on July 13th, 2009 said

You are absolutely right on the money.
seems like Dr Bez will soon learn a painful lesson about brand extension and retaining brand equity…I believe it is simply called myopia, and maybe, a pressure from the board as well to “grow” and “make money..” or just recession panic..probably all of the above.

Scott White on July 13th, 2009 said

I wonder if we’ll see this in the next James Bond movie? What a complete brand killer. When will companies learn that being everything to everyone is the kiss of death?

A.S. on July 13th, 2009 said

My understanding is that the Aston Martin badged iQ will only be available to people who already own an Aston – so it will always be an Aston Martin driver’s second or third car, rather than a cheap means of getting on the Aston ladder, maintaining its exclusivity by proxy, if you will. It’s a bit like buying a Louis Vuitton suitcase, and getting a free purse. Only slightly trashier.

Michael West on July 13th, 2009 said

This is a fantastic strategy. If we look back in history to the 1940’s Lamborghini was a tractor manufacturer. So perhaps Aston Martin is considering more brand extensions and after the Cygnet we’ll see the Aston Martin Plough or Backhoe Loader. This could be a massive untapped market because even farmers need to ride in style!

Mark Ritson on July 13th, 2009 said

Great comments, as ever!

Andy points out that so far Aston have suggested they would only sell this to existing Aston users. True, but I strongly suspect this criterion will disappear before the launch date. And even if the owners are restricted to Aston buyers – the re-sell market will soon break that down.

I remain convinced this is an early example of environmental strategic considerations overtaking those related to brand equity.

Derek Chen on July 15th, 2009 said

Almost makes me want to cry, seeing another prestigious brand walking down the path to its (probable) imminent death. Hopefully, there’s something about this brand extension strategy that we’re missing. Perhaps Dr. Bez will reveal something up his sleeve before the Cygnet becomes reality. Right now though, all we can do is sit and watch.

Bill Herring on July 17th, 2009 said

Well said. I think you’re spot on with your comments and Aston’s move surely seems to go against conventional brand wisdom.

The “accessorize your Vantage purchase” strategy makes only limited sense to me – would a Vantage owner really want to be seen in one of these?

At the same time, I find the little car appealing, largely due to the association with Aston. I’m not one for small cars and I truly love the proper Aston Martins. Yet if current trends force me to a city car, then this is the way I’d want to go. What a mixed up world.

Catherine Michotte on January 04th, 2011 said

Mike West You just make my day with your “even farmers need to ride in style”

Thank You

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