There are few things more quintessentially English than a Bentley. But since the brand came under Volkswagen ownership, industry pundits have been waiting to see whether the German automotive giant would continue to pay homage to the car’s English roots. Any fears that this would not be the case were partly allayed with last week’s launch of the Bentley Continental GT – the first new Bentley model under its VW parentage.
Yet under the conspicuous trappings of patrician sporting luxury – hide, wood and styling cues drawn from Bentleys of old – there lies what is effectively a modified version of VW’s Audi A8.
So sensitive is the issue of Bentley’s Englishness, that no one from the company was willing to speak to Marketing Week about the brand and its relationship with VW and other marques within the group. The press pack for the latest Bentley model refers to VW just twice, and the website for Team Bentley racing cars blatantly pays heed to the brand’s heritage by featuring a car draped in the Union Jack.
Brand heritage and the halo effect of premium brands on mass-market marques within the same group are issues that have faced the large car manufacturers since their Nineties’ scramble for luxury car brands, among them Ford which bought Aston Martin and BMW which acquired the Rolls-Royce brand.
Professor Garel Rhys, of the Institute of Automotive Research at Cardiff University Business School, warns: “The danger with foreign ownership is one of misunderstanding: it’s like American interpretations of British pubs that look nothing like the real thing.”
Interbrand deputy chairman Tom Blackett adds that all manufacturers with premium car brands – including Italian car giant Fiat which bought Ferrari in the Sixties to prevent ownership moving overseas to Ford – should be wary of the fact that any overt link to their bread-and-butter models can serve to diminish the exclusivity of super brands. He says the usual strategy is for all marketing and press materials to eschew reference to a humdrum parent company, leaving the connection to be pushed in a more subtle way through public relations.
Blackett, like many others, believes that the car industry’s investment in super brands has more to do with the personal vanities and rivalries of the top brass than any specific business plan.
BMW and VW competed to buy the Bentley and Rolls-Royce marques from Vickers in 1998. Bernd Pischetsrieder, then chairman of BMW, was trumped by VW chairman Ferdinand Piech, who paid £500m for Bentley and the production facilities at Crewe. But BMW subsequently walked away with the licensing rights for Rolls-Royce for the less princely sum of £40m.
A well-placed industry source believes the German connection will have less of an effect on Rolls-Royce, which has been powered by BMW engines for some time, than on Bentley. He adds that the Rolls-Royce brand has more international r
esonance for the super rich than Bentley, which could find that its association with VW detracts from its desirability.
So far, many industry commentators believe both German companies have done a good job of launching models under their British trophy brands, but the long-term health of such a strategy is more questionable.
While the new Bentley model has been greeted with many plaudits, Rhys points out that VW has ambitious sales targets for the Bentley Continental GT – 10,000 at £110,000 each over the car’s lifespan. Bentley claims to have taken more than 3,200 deposits already.
The premium market for cars costing more than £100,000 is extremely small says Rhys. “If you get it right, you stand to make a profit and if you don’t, you still get a halo effect of being seen as able to produce products of such quality within your company,” he adds.
Aston Martin director of public affairs Tim Watson admits that Ford has in the past been guilty of using parts taken from its existing models. But now, he says, the car will have bespoke parts enabling Ford to learn more from the brand generally, following the piloting of technology.
Watson adds that Aston Martin is marketed on a one-to-one basis, possible because only 19,000 of its cars have ever been produced. Loyal customers are rewarded with factory visits and an invitation to dinner with the chief executive.
As Blackett says: “People pay out all this lolly because they want something unique.”
That is the lesson that Ferrari has learned. Ferrari president and chief executive Luca di Montezemolo has made clear there will be no return to marketing Fiat and Lancia models with Ferrari engines as was done in the Sixties with Fiat Dino and again in the Eighties with Lancia Thema Ferrari. Ferrari F1 cars do, however, have Fiat decals on them.
One of the main planks of Ferrari’s marketing strategy is to maintain the exclusivity of its cars, capping annual production to just over 4,200 units worldwide and maintaining waiting lists of up to one-and-a-half years.
Ferrari is likely to exploit its Italian roots in its battle against rival Lamborghini, which is now also owned by VW. Like Bentley’s latest model, Lamborghini’s Gallardo sports car shares significant engineering and components with the mass-market Audi.
Having bought up most of the premium brands (only Porsche remains independent), car manufacturers would do well to pay heed to a marque’s heritage and exclusivity or they may find that enthusiasts in search of unique, handcrafted cars find favour with other brands.