After years of instability, Aston Martin Lagonda has parked in the stock market with its most diverse model line-up to boot. The marque’s chief marketing officer has also been spreading his bets in media planning in a bid to boost brand awareness, particularly among female drivers and Asian petrolheads.
Aston Martin’s stand at the Geneva Motor Show last month was a pleasant surprise for journalists, analysts and buyers. The reveal of innovative models such as the mid-engined Vanquish Vision Concept and the all-electric, all-terrain Lagonda SUV garnered nods of approval from an industry that once dismissed the UK carmaker as an ailing elderly uncle.
For Simon Sproule, Aston Martin’s vice-president, chief marketing officer, the show was nothing short of “historic” in terms of what was unveiled.
“We sort of showed the full, mid-engined, strategy for the company,” he said. “It was a strategy that we talked about three years and we're now executing it. It's going to change the pace of Aston Martin and makes a very different looking company.”
The brand’s internal workings have transformed almost as much as its model line-up in recent years. Andy Palmer, “an engineer-turned-marketing guru”, left a lifelong career at Nissan to become its chief executive in 2014; he was duly handed a brief to minimise its debts, stem its pre-tax losses of £72m and reenergize the 106-year-old brand with new customers.
Wealthy female drivers, particularly those in Asia, were placed at the core of this strategy. With absolutely no margin to cover a ‘Bic for Her’ PR fiasco, Palmer set up an all-female advisory board of entrepreneurs, customers, journalists and “the occasional celebrity” to make sure the marque’s marketing and product speaks authentically to female audience.
Three years on, the board continues to play a key role in rewinding Aston Martin’s reputation as a car for womanizing fictional spies. Yet Sproule is taking a slow, nuanced approach to this spooling process, keeping more attuned to the similarities between male and female customers than the differences.
“The danger with trying to be something different to a different demographic is you end up fracturing your brand,” he said. “We are who we are at Aston Martin, and we have a set of values that we believe have equal appeal to both genders. We've studied this hard.
"We're not seeing women say, ‘well I love an Aston Martin for this reason’ and men say, ‘I love it for that reason’. They love Aston Martin for pretty much the same brand attributes: power, beauty, soul.”
So, while Sproule is speaking directly women through Instagram (7.3 million followers) and stylized, above-the-line campaigns from artists such as Rankin and Nick Knight (“they’re very different from the content that we produced in the past”) – and the product team is investing more into the SUV category (a model more popular among its female fans) – Aston Martin is making sure it connects with drivers of both genders through brand partnerships with mass appeal, inking relationships with the likes of Hilton, Beats by Dre and Sky.
These deals are all cut to “accelerate” its own marketing efforts, according to Sproule, but perhaps the most salient brand on Aston Martin’s growing list of partnerships is Red Bull. The mid-engined cars currently transforming the brand’s auto offering are “fruits of the relationship” that – crucially – gives it high-level access to the Formula One circuit.
“F1 is ultimately an experience,” explained the marketer. “It’s a brand-building process because people watch the cars on TV and see Aston Martin. But the on-track experiences, the hosting, the events around the Formula One circuit...those are critically important parts of talking to customers, prospective customers, showing them the product, having car displays, having track experiences and so forth.
“So, you're going to continue to see us doing more above-the-line than we have in the past, but I think experiential will probably rise as a percentage of our total marketing [spend].”
This is the crux of Aston Martin’s refreshed marketing strategy: using data to target its relatively small pool of prospective buyers with real-life activations at places such as F1 tracks, luxury hotels and motor shows, while brand building in a wider capacity through above-the-line. The latter is important, Sproule noted, because “in some ... growth markets, Aston Martin is known, but perhaps not as well understood as it is in the UK”.
The final piece of the puzzle is CRM. The brand has been “building out the foundations of an entirely new CRM engine” with investments into Salesforce, a new website and configuration technology that allows customers to customise cars online. They’re not sexy investments, Sproule admits, but he’s aware that if “you don't have a robust CRM engine and a world class a website then you are really are nowhere”.
Last October saw Aston Martin float on the London Stock Exchange with a valuation of £4.33bn. Its first financials since going public were lukewarm; shares tumbled 18% and the company placed an amount of blame on increasing “geopolitical and economic uncertainties”.
Brexit is a question that never looms far away from Palmer, given its British manufacturing credentials. Yet the CEO has remained optimistic about Aston Martin’s future – one that has the unique ability to straddle electric with the Lagonda marque and luxury heritage with its flagship brand.
With a solid strategy to crack China, the Middle East and the female market, coupled with the rejection of a no-deal Brexit, he may just prove his critics wrong – but only if the marketing is completely right.