Sunday, 18 December 2016

Organisation heads talk about the pros and cons of association with James Bond

A view of Vauxhall Cross, SIS headquarters
Mention MI6 and Aston Martin to anyone, and chances are they'll immediately think of James Bond. The car manufacturer has been associated with Bond for over 50 years, starting in practical terms at least with Goldfinger, released in 1964 (the 1959 novel also features as Aston Martin). In contrast, MI6 has never claimed an official association with Ian Fleming's creation (although, interestingly, Peter Lamont reveals in his autobiography, The Man with the Golden Eye, that he gained access to MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall Cross in preparation to film the building for GoldenEye and subsequent films). However, any media article about the organisation, or statements made by its head or former officers, inevitably allude to the fictional super-spy, and the organisation is no doubt permanently inundated with applications from wannabe Bonds.

These relationships with James Bond were raised recently by the head of MI6 (or more properly SIS) and Aston Martin's director of global marketing in statements that were in some ways rather similar. While both acknowledged the benefits their association with James Bond has brought, they also alluded to negative aspects.

In a speech to journalists at Vauxhall Cross earlier this month, the chief of SIS (known as 'C') Alex Younger described how James Bond helped create a powerful brand for SIS that gave the organisation, or at least its name, worldwide recognition. Younger also admitted that SIS requires a deep grasp of gadgets and employs a real-life Q.

But, he continued, James Bond also creates a false picture of the type of people who work for the organisation. There is no single characteristic that defines an SIS officer, whether that be an Oxbridge graduate or an expert in hand-to-hand combat, and James Bond types who are reckless, immoral, or prone to law-breaking need not apply.

Dan Balmer, director of global marketing at Aston Martin, also considered both the positive and negative aspects of an association with James Bond. He told Marketing Week last month that while the company remains open to the opportunities that an association with Bond brings, it relied too much on James Bond in the past. Its marketing, for instance, has tended to focus around the release of new Bond films, the result being that between films people stop talking about the cars and sales suffer.

Balmer spoke about how Aston Martin was planning to move beyond its perceived British and male core market (his comments about Bond hint at the fact that Bond naturally helps reinforce this perception), announcing that its marketing will now be designed to appeal to international audiences and female drivers.

In making their statements, both Alex Younger and Dan Balmer acknowledge the role, whether welcome or not, that James Bond plays in promoting their organisations and maintaining brand awareness. In memetic terms, the Bond films, to which Younger and Balmer alluded, are a highly successful vehicle for spreading ideas or memes about Aston Martin and SIS (even if inaccurate). However, the association between the organisations and Bond is so strong that the films aren't necessary to spread and reinforce those memes. The press and other media also do the job, but the association is so firmly fixed in people's minds, who wittingly or unwittingly pass it on to others, that it is practically self-replicating.

This means that, unfortunately for Alex Younger and Dan Balmer, it'll take a very long time – and the disappearance of Bond from the cultural environment – to change popular perceptions. Aston Martin and SIS will remain synonymous with Bond for a while longer yet.

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