making exquisitely handcrafted automobiles in Newport Pagnell since 1914.
Ownership has been varied, but most recently, the British make was bought by Ford Motor Company in 1987 and became a full member of the Premier Automotive Group in 1999. Ford’s initial decision to acquire Aston Martin Lagonda Limited may have been influenced by pure affection for the car, but eventually profits became an issue. Within the decade, Ford formed a strategic team to haul Aston Martin’s ailing bottom line out of the garage and onto the speedway.
The turnaround team immediately recognized that the challenge didn’t come down to price. Why would anyone pay US$125,000 for a product that shows similar performance to cars priced at $65,000? And if the buyer would be prepared to part with hundreds of thousands dollars for a Lagonda saloon (sedan), wouldn’t he rather own a better known Rolls Royce? Sidestepping those rational questions, the team concentrated on the soft side of the consumer and explored the irrational appeal of emotion, love, and heart.
And there’s a lot of heart in Aston Martin enthusiasts. I only had to talk for a few minutes with Vincent Grimaldi de Puget, a former Ford Motor Company executive who masterminded the strategy behind the make’s turnaround, to discover how deeply passions run toward this brand. A Frenchman who’s lost none of the Gallic fondness for flagrant exaggeration on the subject of beautiful objects, it was immediately clear how strongly he felt about the product. “Aston Martins are one of a kind. They are macho and powerful, but also sophisticated, exclusive, and handcrafted… They totally talk to your heart.”
The challenge was in conveying that passion to the customer. “Everybody was saying ‘It’s the James Bond car.’ This association was critical because many people might not be familiar with Aston Martin – after all, they only make a few hundred cars a year, versus over 3,000 for Ferrari – but everyone knows James Bond 007, and what he stands for.” explained Grimaldi.
Since Bond’s first appearance in an Aston Martin DB5 (Goldfinger, for those of you who have to know), the car has been tied to the masculine sex appeal of the MI6 spy. The branding team captured that perception and positioned the car as an exclusive luxury sports coupe/convertible for an affluent consumer seeking unlimited power beneath the pedal. And then – not forgetting Bond’s loyalty to Her Majesty’s Service – the team further defined Aston Martin’s attributes as British and uniquely superior in craftsmanship.
The next step involved refocusing the company. As Grimaldi notes, “Whatever your strategy, it must be simple, clear, and understood by everyone from the CEO to the janitor. Nobody reads big binders. Come up with a plan that fits on one page, and run it past your receptionist. If she looks puzzled, it’s time to simplify or start over.”
Once it cleared the receptionist, the team had reached its goal of setting up a focused strategy that was easy to understand, easy to communicate, and more likely to be successfully implemented. According to Grimaldi, strategies often fail because of the disconnect between strategy development and implementation. The whole process, called LEAP™ (LEadership Aligned with Positioning), not only ensures that there is a market to buy the product, but also dives deep into preparing the implementation at all levels. With the CEO and officers focused on the brand positioning in the mind of the consumer, the organization, suppliers, and vendors could now be aligned on the same vision.
All of a sudden, product development engineers had a clear direction of where to allocate their scarce resources. They sent the plans for a Lagonda four-door saloon to the freezer and embarked on producing a new V12 engine instead. Eventually, marketing, advertising, and dealer distribution were all aligned to reinforce the same message at every contact point with the consumer.
It worked. Within two years, Aston Martin actually broke even for the first time in its long history. And the ongoing association with Ford appears to be mutually beneficial. Aston Martin is able to maintain its small, exclusive manufacturing approach and Ford is able to add another luxury make to its Premier Automotive Group thereby expanding its portfolio to entice a greater share of consumer appeal.
Recently reported plans to market a “cheaper” version of the Aston Martin may have startled fans, but Aston Martin’s Public Affairs Director Tim Watson assures us that the word “smaller” is more appropriate and there is no need to panic about the effect on the brand. “We would never do anything to sacrifice quality. This smaller version will have all of the DNA of an Aston Martin.”
The smaller version would reportedly be more in line with a Porsche 911 although Watson was reluctant to establish or even guess at a price range at this early date. “We are still three to four years away from this, but it will mean that we’ll be able to make more cars in a different sector and increase awareness worldwide.”
Is exclusivity still a priority at Aston Martin? Last year, Porsche manufactured 48,815 cars (23,050 units were 911 and 25,747 were Boxster). Compare this with Aston Martin who, according to Watson, has probably manufactured 16,000 cars in its entire history. In keeping with this estimate, this year’s plan to make around 1000 to 1300 cars seems just about right.