Aston Martin Lagonda is an iconic UK car marque, with a 102 year heritage built on beauty, craftsmanship, racing and James Bond.
Simon Sproule is the company’s chief marketing officer. He previously worked as VP marketing and communications at Tesla Motors in the US, and CVP global marketing communications at Nissan in Japan. Since joining Aston Martin in November 2014 he has succeeded in integrating the marketing team, and has appointed a head of content to manage both content and digital. I began by asking him about the opportunities and challenges facing such an iconic brand.
Sproule: Aston Martin has a strong story, which gives us a head start. It has a great history and a beautiful product. You never hear the words ‘that’s a really ugly Aston Martin’. It has beauty and craftsmanship on its side. All of this provides a strong marketing platform.
I would say that the care point is making sure the story remains relevant. For example, the emerging markets have no sense of the legacy or history of Aston Martin. They are discovering something new, so for them the brand is five minutes old. Our heritage gives us an advantage because people who are new to the brand will start to discover our story. It gives them reassurance, but we can’t rely on history alone. A brand always needs to stay fresh and not be stuck in the past.
Aston Martin has been bankrupt seven times in 102 years, and it has successfully reinvented itself each time. It is iconic in the UK, and deeply understood, but outside of the UK, and particularly outside of Europe, it is perhaps less instinctively understood. It presents an interesting set of challenges.
CMO.com: How do you go about telling such stories, and how important is digital in bringing the brand to life?
Sproule: Content is king, but digital for me is just a channel; a way of delivering content. What is much more important to me is the substance of the stories I am trying to tell, and those stories are primarily around the product and around the history, James Bond, racing. We try to share a lot around the product and the way it is made and the technology, craftsmanship and engineering involved, as well as the people associated with it.
Serena Williams visited our factory just before Wimbledon this year. She went to one of our test tracks and drove some cars, and said she had never been so fast in her life. That’s all good content and it provides colour and texture and context to the brand. We covered that story using video and Twitter.
There is an enormous hunger from fans for stuff about Aston Martin, and even if someone is never going to buy a car it is important that we respect their affection and love for the brand. We are serving a number of different needs with our content strategy--brand strategy, owner strategy, prospect strategy--and in the end it is all down to good storytelling.
CMO.com: How is Aston Martin’s customer base changing?
Sproule: The traditional customer for luxury cars--typically male caucasian--is no longer true. There is a radically changing demographic and we have to adjust our messaging so that we are relevant to that buyer too.
Our overall market is high net worth individuals. In the UK, Europe and the US, roughly 60% of our customers are late 40s and upwards. Our Chinese customers, however, are about 10 years younger than our western buyers, and tend to average late 30s. There is much more interest from women in China too.
CMO.com: How do you ensure that the brand appeals to women?
Sproule: We would like to see more women as the principal customer, and it comes down to products and relevance. Product wise we are just about to launch the next generation of sports cars. What we’re not doing is the so-called ‘pink it and shrink it’ strategy, which would be disastrous; we are producing Aston Martins, and we are producing Aston Martins that are true to the brand values.
Regarding product design, our CEO, Andy Palmer has created a women’s advisory panel of between ten and 12 women from around the world. They share their thoughts on what our cars should look like in future and what functionality we need to include to appeal to female buyers. For example, steering wheel thickness, and relative positioning of the paddle shift on the steering column to the steering wheel: guys have longer fingers and bigger hands, so if all your cars are designed with males in mind, most women won’t feel comfortable driving the car. This is a wider car industry issue, but we are paying particular attention to it because in the past we have perhaps over-indexed on a car designed by a bunch of guys in the West Midlands. The new buyer of an Aston Martin is a Chinese female, and she has to jump in the car and instantly feel comfortable.
CMO.com: You mention that 40 percent of your western customers are, on average, late 40s--or Generation X--how do you appeal to this younger market?
Sproule: Forty percent of the world’s wealth is with Generation X and the millennials; that is a very substantial part of our market and they are very different to boomers. Their cultural references are very different; they are the first video game generation, for example. We have to think about what will be attractive to a Gen X buyer.
It is quite a complex and nuanced challenge. I took over as CMO a year ago. We have since taken on a new agency (WPP), and a new CRM partner (Salesforce), so we are investing in the infrastructure to enable us to run with the big boys when it comes to marketing and communications.
It is a work in progress, but a good example is Gran Turismo, the world’s most successful driving video game. We created cars for Gran Turismo, which allows us to service two audiences: our fans, because they want to be able to race and play with Aston Martins in video games; and Gen X, our prospective customers, who still play a lot of video games. Being relevant in something like Gran Turismo is spot on for both our fan base and some of our customers.
CMO.com: You are a keen advocate of an integrated marketing team. How have you approached this at Aston Martin and how easy was it to implement?
Sproule: I believe in it completely. We integrated and formalised it this year, so we work as one team right across brand management, CRM, digital and social media, events, shows, PR, CSR, test drive activities, customers visits to the factory--the whole lot.
But you never do integration without pain and suffering. The first experience I had with it was at Nissan, and you take some people on the journey and some people you leave behind; that is the reality.
The logic for it in my mind is absolutely clear; the customer doesn’t care which department created which message; it’s completely irrelevant. I think social media was one of the tipping points for integration because you had this ludicrous situation where PR was saying, ‘it’s our responsibility to post on Facebook and engage with customers and fans’ and the marketing department would say, ‘no, it’s ours’. I witnessed these ridiculous arguments, and I think social media basically exposed the fact that having lots of silos is highly inefficient and a poor way to manage a brand.
But that doesn’t mean to say you lose the need for specialisation. Brands will continue to have people who are PR professionals and have no interest in doing advertising or events, for example. The important part is ensuring that you are talking to each other. When you actually go to market, are you integrated?
CMO.com: How have the skills of your marketing team changed in recent times?
Sproule: My CEO is an engineer so he thinks he now has a better skill set for marketing than I do because it is a data-driven business; analytics have come to the fore. Marketers need to stay on top of analytics, and make data-driven decisions.
We now have more people who have a good grasp of data and can make decisions based on it, and it is also reflected in the fact that we are moving away from a patchwork quilt of smaller agencies to bigger partners who have access to bigger data and can provide us with bigger solutions and--I believe--can keep us more up to date with analytics solutions. It is a combination of agency support plus the right balance of people in our internal team.
CMO.com: Digital is now seen as a mindset rather than a channel. How has that changed the way you approach marketing?
Sproule: One big change is that we now have a head of content, and the same guy running content is also running digital. We decided that it makes sense to have one person who has a view over the channels, and the content needed to fill those channels. He can make a judgement call on whether a new car launch story or celebrity story will work best on video or in our customer magazine, for example, or across all channels.
CMO.com: Which social media channels are proving most successful for you?
Sproule: Instagram. We reached over half a million followers on Instagram two months ago, and added another 90,000 last month, so we’re growing quite dramatically on that platform. [It now stands at over 700,000 followers] It suits us well because we are a very visual brand.
We also have over six and a half million Facebook fans. I think that says that the brand is well loved both by people who buy cars and people who don’t buy cars, and that is super-important.
One lesson--and an opportunity--for us is to invest more in video and to do better on YouTube. We underperform on video and YouTube versus what we are achieving on Facebook. We haven’t fully cracked it with video. I look at the likes of Red Bull and GoPro, both brands that create awesome video content, and that is what we need to aspire to.
That said, there is evidence that we are changing and starting to ‘get’ video. We recently put out an awesome piece of content of the new James Bond car doing 007 using screeching tyre marks. It’s great for fans, fun for owners and customers, and just great content. It is an example of us starting to get a little bit more savvy about using video, which we see as a big opportunity going forward.
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