By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. It’s no secret that the automobile business can swing out of control and veer toward parts unknown at any moment. At that point my usual “swirling maelstrom” description seems woefully inadequate, especially when the business takes a bullet train to flat-out Crazy Town.
For the luxury automakers in particular we seem to be entering a new, heightened phase where grasping at straws has become a perfectly acceptable M.O., one certainly carrying as much weight as the other perennial favorite, “Let’s throw it up against the wall and see what sticks.”
The latest evidence? Aston Martin has apparently given up on making cars. I should rephrase that: The company will still make cars, but make no mistake - it now fancies itself as a purveyor of luxury goods encompassing everything from $4,000.00 baby strollers and $20,000.00 ladies’ handbags all the way up to custom sporting yachts.
Yes, the purveyor of bespoke (and magnificent) grand touring machines in the truest sense has decided to take a walk down a wrong road in pursuit of moneyed swells in search of yet another brand they can chew up and spit out in pursuit of that ever-elusive and beatific state of consumptive nirvana.
And why? Because it cannot survive on making limited-production supercars alone, apparently. Aston doesn’t get its saving grace – the DBX crossover - until 2020, which is why it has opened a new luxury retail store in London’s exclusive Mayfair district. Oh sure, there are references to the cars they build inside among the luxury wares for sale, but this is a grandiose effort at brand projection (and revenue generation), with the idea being that Aston Martin can eventually stand as a luxury brand on its own, with or without the cars.
Every luxury automaker CEO who has approved a course correction down this road thinks that they not only can do it better and smarter, but that they can retain and enhance the legitimacy of their brand while doing so. Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer is no different, telling Bloomberg that, "Generally speaking, we don't simply want to brand a product, we want to bring in the Aston design." Sounds reasonable. Then again that’s what every luxury automaker CEO or marketing operative has said when embarking on this Dark Path.
I am reminded that Melody Lee, acknowledged ringleader of Cadillac’s “fab four” millennial marketing posse, once told Fortune magazine, “We want to be a global luxury brand that happens to sell cars. We don’t want to be an automotive brand.” She went on – with the blessing of Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen and CMO Uwe Ellinghaus, no less – to push the Cadillac House image space in Manhattan as proof positive of her ultimate marketing conceit.
Or how about Ferrari, the once-revered Italian sports car maker? Once upon a time Ferrari insisted that it wouldn’t degrade its brand with its “Ferrari World” centers and broadened apparel and tchotchke initiatives, but instead only make the brand more approachable by bringing the “magic” of Ferrari to a wider audience. And how did that work out?
The short answer? Ferrari degraded its brand. To make matters worse, the Italian sports car maker doesn’t have the supercar segment to itself anymore, because while Ferrari operatives were busy projecting the brand into the lifestyle space, its competitors were turning up the heat with compelling, ultra-competitive machines of their own, especially from Lamborghini and McLaren.
I appreciate Palmer’s quest to save Aston Martin’s financial bacon by diversifying into vaporous regions of languid frivolity and endless streams of cash, but ultimately this will prove to be a fool’s errand, because Aston Martin’s core competency doesn’t lie in “design influencing” or lifestyle marketing initiatives into areas that only serve to dumb down the brand the moment they’re announced. No, Aston Martin must find a way to make building its cars sustainable, and for the long run.
And while I’m at it, I’ve never understood why the luxury automakers pursue the lifestyle “collections” game and other such nonsense – oooohhh, look, Mercedes-Benz golf balls! – because it comes off as a disingenuous afterthought and demonstrates a willingness to chase vacuous pursuits full of sound and fury signifying absolutely nothing, something the auto industry has been particularly adept at, by the way.
It’s no secret that auto industry executives can get sidetracked. They do dumb things; they commit to boneheaded product initiatives and then try to market their way out of their mistakes; they lose track of what they’re doing and why they’re there in the first place; and on and on. Some of them don't mean to be that incompetent, while others just simply wake up in that blissful state.
The history of this business is littered with the carcasses of executives who lost their way in pursuit of pots of gold that never existed, a rogue’s gallery of underachievers, maleficent blowhards and unctuous pricks. The result? Failed products, crushing financial mismanagement, missed marketing opportunities, misguided pursuits and a host of other atrocities.
Whether it's due to runaway ego, the “I’m the King of the World” syndrome or a lethal combination of both (see Messrs. Piech, Marchionne, Schrempp, etc.), they inevitably go off the Deep End in pursuit of something that’s either not there, blatantly wrongheaded, or so fleeting of value that it’s undeserving of the company’s time, effort and money.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.