On the eve of the 2016 New York auto show, 14 stories above the Hudson River in a back room of Canoe Studios in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, we sat down with Fintan Knight, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars’ sales and marketing director, to talk about the renewed verve we’re seeing from the 112-year-old automaker.
AM: Is your Bespoke program going to become more important to Rolls-Royce?
FK: We have a team of tailors that travels around the world, and since June 2015 in Goodwood we have a studio that is supposed to take Bespoke to the next level. All of retailers have the ability to do Bespoke, but we’re trying more and more to integrate with the factory via video conferencing so that we can bring those desires into a definable character for a customer. Bespoke can be really confusing because the possibilities are endless. When you sit people down, it’s a question of how to turn what’s in their imagination into a car. There are limits for car production, but those limits can be resolved with a little bit of money. So that process is certainly developing. In Goodwood, there’s already one shop, and I think there’s room for more of those locations around the world.
AM: How far will those Bespoke shops be able to go? Building fully bespoke models?
FK: We are, in one case that we can’t discuss publicly, heavily reengineering cars to meet bespoke requirements, but we’re working within a homologation envelope. (Rolls-Royce would have to build a crash-test example of any bespoke vehicle for homologation.) We have a vision for the future, which might mean, probably, returning to the ideas of coachbuilding but in a more industrialized way. I think manufacturing can change significantly with the advent of 3-D printing, with the use of carbon fiber and those kinds of materials in production. It goes beyond sheet metal. This is very much a longer-term vision, but I think we can change the way cars are made. Rolls-Royce will be at the cutting edge of that, because Bespoke is a quarter of our business. That vision is something we’ll clarify in the next couple of months.
AM: When might we see an all-new Bespoke model?
FK: You will see one in the next 12 months. It’s a one-off.
AM: How is the Cullinan SUV going to fit into your lineup?
FK: Certainly it’s not inconsistent with our DNA. Think about what attributes of a Rolls-Royce are most appreciated. You think of a commander’s car. Absolutely a high-body, all-terrain vehicle fits with the commander’s car, and that’s very consistent with the brand. It’s a car about freedom, that all-terrain capability and protection that kind of car gives you. A Rolls-Royce customer loves freedom, fewer constraints. It’s a very exciting prospect. We make about 4,000 cars a year, and there will be a slight increase, but the Cullinan shouldn’t take us much beyond 6,000. We’ll probably have more demand than supply, and that’s something we like at Rolls-Royce. It’s something our customers like, too. Rolls-Royce has a pretty clear self concept.
AM: Is the pace of business picking up at Rolls-Royce?
FK: I think generally it is picking up, but at this moment in time you also see an intensity of activity. Like Dawn, which is now being driven on the streets, and Black Badge is being shown for the first time and driven by the end of the year. The brand has ambition, and we’ve built a slowly expanding portfolio, but we’re not a volume-chasing company. We’re absolutely not into mass luxury. There are the brands out there that have an ever-proliferating product strategy and generate “units,” but we’re not into that.
AM: Black Badge — seems like a great sales tool. You could always customize a Rolls-Royce to the hilt, but what makes Black Badge even more desirable?
FK: It’s a clear and distinct and permanent philosophy. The target customer for Rolls-Royce has changed quite a lot, the wealth has changed quite a lot. It’s a whole lot younger, it’s a whole lot more diverse. And even in that diversity, there are a lot more industries represented in that wealth. Rolls-Royce used to be the brand for captains of the industry, the ones at the end of the boardroom table — 55 years old, very distinctly white — but there is so much more in the entertainment/entrepreneur space that is different, be it females or diverse races, ethnicities, or nationalities. The risk-taker narrative has always been one in the Rolls-Royce brand, but it hasn’t always come to the surface.
AM: How do you explain Black Badge to new or existing customers?
FK: If you’re a super-luxury brand, you’re expected to be a leader. Standing still is not an option. Moving forward fast and provoking change is something that Rolls-Royce can do. With 112 years of brand equity, there’s little risk in making a strong statement. [Black Badge] is absolutely an excellent tool and has been warmly welcomed so far, even by clients from an older generation. If it’s true to the brand, you can and should say it.
AM: Do you feel like Black Badge is a finished vehicle that shouldn’t get any more customizing?
FK: Yeah, it’s certainly a finished vehicle. But it’s also a vehicle that encourages personal self-expression, and when I talked about wealth transitioning … that next generation, especially in Asia, the sons and daughters of wealth, are far more lifestyle-orientated, and that brings with it a desire for expression. It’s really a platform that encourages people to think differently about the way you can create a car. It opens a door to even more self-expression.
AM: Let’s end on this one: Is it easy or hard to sell a Rolls-Royce?
FK: I think it’s easy. It’s different from the car business, really. One of my favorite stories is about a client of ours in Germany who made his money in the tanzanite business. Often these people are very thankful and want to express that and remind yourself that success can be as simple as putting a tanzanite clock in a car and buying a car that symbolizes that success. For those people, it’s kind of priceless. It’s a symbol of what they’ve achieved in life. It’s not a transaction in the classical sense of the word. It’s a statement. It’s not a hard sell but soft sell, a true luxury sell.