Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Company Focus – Aston Martin Lagonda – Stretching its Wings with Cygnet.

The emergence of the premium city car came about with the Daimler's brave introduction of the innovative A-class in 1997. It was quickly nick-named 'The Earl of Sandwich' amongst the UK auto-industry given its high price position and innovative twin-layered floor.

Developed from the smaller 1993 'Vision A' concept, which size-wise sat equidistant between production A-class and >Smart ForTwo, so spawning 2 original concepts for the German corporation. A company which at the time had enough liquidity and credibility to take over Chrysler so as to seek platform synergies, accordant cost savings and operational stretch across a broader consumer market. History shows how this corporate ambition flailed, but the A class, along with its less numerous but technically visionary Audi A2, set the scene for establishing the genre as a credible sector.

Premium small cars had been undertaken before, as seen in the 1960s with the effectively coach-trimmed Mini offerings from Hooper Coachworks for Peter Sellers, Wood & Pickett for George Harrison of The Beatles), and the Downton variant, all of course based on the original primary premium small car, the performance orientated Mini Cooper & Cooper S. FIAT of course had Abarth & Giannini variants of the 500 (Cinquecento)and Renault the 8 Gordini.

The French in particular applied up-market fashion-label marketing ties for limited run editions - as seen with the Peugeot 205 Lacoste and others, this effectively copied in the late 1990s by Rover Group for the limited edition Paul Smith 'designer' Mini.

And obviously, those original, inspiring auto-centric monikers have been of course been revived, since the re-introduction of Mini by BMW, the 'Cooper character' utilised as the 'centre of gravity' when devising the reborn range. Abarth and Gordini more recently used to give provenance to the Italian and French makers' higher priced variants. So far the FIAT 500 Abarth Ferrari edition, and one-off Rolls-Royce trimmed Mini reflect the ultimate yet.

Thus it could be said that where possible in the 2000s, most small car makers have adopted the idea of “Putting on the (Mini) Ritz'...and in doing so, as the song says 'Trying very hard to look like (Gary) Cooper.”

Harrods of Knightsbridge, here in London, currently showcases the latest premium city car offering, with Aston Martin Lagonda's much awaited and debated 'Cygnet'. Never have the Aston 'wings' adorned anything so brand-radical, such a small and up-right car sourced from a mainstream producer, re-worked heavily cosmetically and partially mechanically.

It is a landmark vehicle for the company, which although today stands bigger and stronger than almost ever thanks to Ford's previous governance – especially when compared to its its Lionel Martin 'origination' or David Brown / Victor Gauntlett 'stewardship' days – faces very different business challenges. Back into the private ownership hands of UK and Middle-Eastern investors, today the company must leverage its past experience which brought both increased professionalism, improved commercial acumen, scale growth and so production economies, advantageous infrastructure facilities, a worldwide dealer-base etc.

In short Ford help massively to provide the 'spring-board' for the firm to develop into a very different entity – stronger and more ambitious – and having to be so to convincingly compete against those 'parentally protected' such as: VW's Bentley, FIAT's Ferrari/Maserati, Daimler's Mercedes/AMG and assisted McLaren, BMW's M-series and even Rolls-Royce with its expected Ghost Sports-Coupe.

This independent AML however, like all premium auto-makers, did suffer heavily from the consumer impact of the financial collapse. So beyond pairing back to the bone operationally, this headwind event along with important others - such as the critical incoming CAFE-type emissions regulations - has made the management at its Gaydon HQ think differently about exactly how to create a tenable and ideally prosperous future.

It unsurprisingly sees that through expanding the business both in terms of breadth by re-introducing the Lagonda marque at some point, and expanding the Aston Martin product-line and so reach into new premium markets. That has meant the introduction of the 'Rapide' 4-door coupe and recent preview of 'Cygnet'. These more nominally mainstream cars thus respectively give additional 'breadth' and 'depth' through sub-sector entry, and thus herald new stakes in the ground as claims for new territory.

However, even before the event of the 2008 financial collapse and even on the back of record global unit sales, AML will have recognised that its independence and self-reliance would only be possible with external assistance from one or more major manufacturers. Hence, to try and obtain the reduced procurement costs available to their counterparts, to provide accessible technology streams ideally across the 5 prime vehicle engineering areas so that AML could better devise its own R&D strategy, and so to offer the possibility of adapting and utilising off-the-shelf systems, whole platforms or indeed whole vehicles. The ambition being that these out-sourced R&D and tooling items have already absorbed in part or fully through a 3rd party's own in-house project amortisation.

As CEO Ulrich Bez and the company's owners saw the 2007/8 demolition of both private wealth and effectively closed bank funding access the decision to act strategically and quickly on what were probably already seen as plotted strategic possibilities was taken: to both maintain backing of 'Rapide' with in house resources, and leverage Toyota and its (as yet to be applauded) iQ model to provide for Cygnet.

Thus Cygnet has been a leap of faith on many levels.

However, although large by UK independent manufacturer standards, AML is in structural capacity terms a minnow when compared to VW, Daimler or BMW, so fortunately without the obligation to fill factory production space. Indeed it was always known that 'Rapide' would be assembled elsewhere, as stated in the previous Arabic post, originally ideally in Kuwait given Investment DAR's national development interests, but almost always set for the likes of Steyr (as seen), Huliez, Pininfarina or similar to ensure project delivery timing and product quality.

The ability to process manage 'Rapide' outsourcing in a professional manner (as oppose to the ad-hoc method with earlier 1960s-80s projects) plus the experience of former interaction with Ford's PAG should have step by step generated a level of ease within AML regards running what are effectively joint-venture vehicle programmes.

Thus, from a market perspective, given he apparent buoyancy of the premium small car sector (and the CAFE need to off-set AML's large car V12 & V8 emissions) it was inevitable that a small car project exploration would take place. And given the realistically restricted options available, any project solution would involve adoption of a major car maker's A or B-segment vehicle. The Germans would not (understandably) be willing to share proprietary technology with what is seen as a high-threat competitor, so it was no surprise to investment-auto-motives that Toyota – already a supplier of power-train to UK sport-scar builders and with its own UK manufacturing presence and good political relations – provided the (iQ) platform as the basis for Cygnet. Indeed, from a commercial angle, almost a given 'on a plate' since the top-spec, fully-loaded Japanese iQ models – typically unavailable anywhere outside Japan – could be used as a base.

However, it has caused much debate, both by those shoppers and tourists in Harrods, within the auto-industry and amongst the public-facing car press.

Of the former, a very quick, informal survey of those those that eyed the IQ showed unsurprisingly men frowning and women smiling. In the latter it has divided 'for' and 'against' opinions respectively between the editor of Autocar magazine and a contributor to Marketing Week magazine.

The differential being that there is a major chasm between 'brand extension' as with Ferrari's use of caps, shirts etc (ie merchandise) and 'product-line extension' as reflected by a new vehicle product launch (ie as part of core range). The argument is that these two very different actions have different affects on the core personality, credibility and so reputation of a brand. Much of course depends upon the execution of the newly introduced product, in essence “how true is it to brand DNA amd general perception” and indeed “how much DNA-stretch do the products of a particular brand actually have ?” Get it right and the result flies off the shelf...get it wrong and it could convey the practice of cynical cold marketing.

From a generalist perspective regards the Cygnet case, investment-auto-motives agrees with the concerns of the marketeer. For most 'autophiles' who respect the lineage and GT/racing character of Aston Martin it is indeed a stretch far too far. The product execution of heavy 'design cue' adaption of an iQ is not credible. Akin to a shapeless, wannabe gym-bunny decked from head to foot in sports-logo sponsored lycra...but inevitably destined to sit infront of the TV.

This was precisely why investment-auto-motives wrote a column pointing out that Cygnet should be branded Lagonda, so as to sit alongside its future (possibly Daimler sourced) Lagonda badged SUV big brother. In essence to create the rational basis and segment stretch for a new domain of
vehicles, Lagonda as an affiliated but distinctly separate brand to A-M that had the innate new-brand flexibility that enabled credible adaption of others' products; that was the central raison d'etre.

[NB investment-auto-motives believes the down-sizing west presently lives through an era pertaining to the 'paradoxical premium'. This was previously noted in the TV advertising for Mini 4 (ie Countryman), and conveys to the consumer (and allows him/her in turn) to demonstrate a level of 'constructed irony' regards the premium good. It follows in the pastiche tradition, and is brilliantly demonstrated by a product and display toward the rear of Harrods.

Here the Theo Fennel brand has produced fine silver crafted 'coats and caps' for the classic everyday items of the English breakfast table, ie HP sauce bottle, Heinz ketchup bottle, Marmite jar, Coleman Mustard jar and other similar condiment items. These silver casings are blatantly superfluous to function, yet 'work' as they combine innate grandioseness with the balance of contextual humour. In short a psychologically and sociologically balanced premium offering for a mundane activity.

Such examples should be 'digested' to help inspire similar efforts within the automotive realm. A light-hearted attitudinal direction may have seen Cygnet 'play' further on its origins, in a similar vein to the 1998 New Beetle's inclusion of the abstract flower and vase alluding to original Beetle].

However, here is the rub for marque purists with regards to Aston Martin.

Having previously set-out the strategic imperative, it seems that a very real operational, short-term cash-flow rational has been the basis for the A-M badged Cygnet. Cygnet is very probably helping to underpin that all important corporate agenda right now: accessible and low cost working capital.

Gaydon has undoubtedly given the issue much thought, and reached its conclusion that beyond the fact that the global A-M global dealer-base needs new product beyond Rapide which accords to the times and broadens the client-base. Yet more important for the AML HQ is the fact that short-term pressures to generate income is very probably nigh on critical.

This period is all too telling, since having seen the peaks and troughs of the company's past, Dr Bez and colleagues undoubtedly wish to stabalise the sales/income curve. So as to overcome the all-too typical wide-swing cyclicity typically seen by independent premium sportscar makers. Gaining improved control of the demand-side of the business model as well as the supply-side is the ideal of all companies, but perhaps none so much as the likes of AML with so exposure to events such as recessions, oil crisis, 'down-shifting' sociological trends etc. (This is something both Morgan and Ferrari at either end of that spectrum in size and product offering have done).

The ultimate paradox for the brand purist is that – depending on its production numbers and 'exclusivity' – the parody Cygnet will sell well. There is always a market for limited number, exclusive club fashion goods, no matter what their logical or pseudo logical rationale. And that income will be welcomed by Ulrich Bez, Dave Richards, John Sinders and the Kuwait based EFAD Group / Investment DAR.

Whilst those high net worth ladies who have earned their own wealth take a male attitude toward the car, and would only ever buy a Vantage or better, the Cygnet is the perfect 'designer' Christmas present for those cosseted daughters, wives and girlfriends of wealthy men. Importantly, it is only available to Aston Martin customers, thereby generating a level of demand amongst a section of people who want to have themselves recognised as the preferred clients of AML.

Moreover, it will probably act as as the 'City run-about' for wealthy families who have a car 'tied' to their London, Paris or Milan apartments sat within basement car-parks. Or indeed as the 'Marina run-about' in the guise of a pseudo modern-day successor to the canopy-topped, wicker-seated FIAT 600 Jolly. But for most users inhabiting the suburban fringes, it simply allow them to say “my other car is an....Aston Martin”. Cygnet then, being AML client only, acts as lifestyle mirror for times when driving the 'real' Aston is inconvenient.

Indeed, very probably the Arabic owners of AML and Harrods will individually take one or two so as to help prop up the company and their associated holdings – and if one were in their position of company stewardship and wealth, one would have to ask “well why not?”.

Yet, let's hope that they also ask for the Lagonda-bronze body colour and an after-fit Lagonda badge. Why just start a fashion trend, when you personally have the capability to start a new company?

Those lucky few will just need to find a very large, car-sized, box that says “Eid Mubarak” and “Merry Christmas”.