Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Christophe Georges, President & CEO, Bentley Motors Inc

Bentley is not a marketing concept that was created because of communication, explains Christophe Georges, President & CEO of Bentley Motors Inc.
2013 was a record sales year for Bentley. The Crewe, England-based manufacturer of €150,000+ cars posted a 19% rise in world-wide sales, reaching 10,120 units. New retail concepts were tested, a new dealership identity was conceived and an SUV for 2016 was confirmed, as the brand expanded into homewares for the very first time.

In short, it is an exciting time for the brand, which is ambitiously targeting sales of 15,000 units by 2018. Bentley will celebrate its 100th anniversary the following year, and has plans to move into more (as yet unknown) categories before this time, in a bid to better cement its place in the market as a true luxury brands.

Christophe Georges is leading the charge for the brand in the Americas, which remains Bentley’s largest market. The automotive veteran was appointed President & COO of Bentley Motors Inc. in 2007, after serving as the Regional Director Europe for Bentley Motors Limited, where he was responsible for a twenty-fold increase in sales.

Sales in the Americas have continued to increase by the double-digits under Christophe’s leadership, supported by a network of over fifty dealerships. We sat down to talk about the state of the luxury market and how Bentley works to differentiate itself from other so-called ‘luxury’ car brands.

“ Luxury for us cannot be disassociated from craftsmanship ”

If you believe in marketing, there are a lot of ‘luxury’ cars on the market these days…

Everybody speaks about luxury, and everybody pretends to be part of a luxury. And luxury is a relative notion. It’s very hard to define what it is. We have our own definition of course, but in the luxury automotive segment – as a starting point – luxury is a combination of exclusivity, of the specifications of the car, of the performance and technology.

But alone this is not enough. You can drive a lot of cars from other brands, which are technologically advanced, but they will not be true luxury. This is our difference and what we are about. The way we define true luxury is all about substance. Luxury for us cannot be disassociated from craftsmanship, from attention to detail, the way you treat materials and the way you uniquely create your product.

Bentley is the perfect association of luxury and performance. When I talk about performance, this is all the power, acceleration and technology that you feel and enjoy when you drive the car, but it is complimented with the most refined features and highest level of craftsmanship. This combination is quite unique.

“ Bentley is the perfect association of luxury and performance ”

You will find comfortable cars in the market, but they are not fast. Or you will find sports cars in the marketplace, but they wouldn’t be so refined and so luxurious and comfortable. We at Bentley give the best association of both worlds. This is what we are about.

It’s similar to watches. Any kind of watch can give you the perfect time, but the value of true luxury watches is lies in the craftsmanship and the movements. It is the process behind the final product that gives it is value, not only the final product itself. We feel the same way about Bentley, it is much more than a car, it’s really an object d’art.

And if you come to visit the factory then you can really feel what it is about. It is not a factory. It is much more than that. It is much more a sanctuary where we religiously develop and produce our cars.

When you talk about exclusivity, how many cars are you producing each year?

We have produced roughly 5000 this first-half of 2014. This is what we did last year. This is where we are. It’s about 10,000 cars a year, which gives some flavour of exclusivity but again, exclusivity, is not about a number. Exclusivity for us is much more about the way it is being done and the number is a consequence of it.

And in terms of first-half (2015) sales, how is North America performing?

We are performing well at the end of half year one. We had an increase of 11%, but this is consecutive to an increase last year for business of 28%, the year before 22%, the year before 32%, so we are following a strong growth path in America. It remains our number one market.

In terms of cities we still have three major hubs, being South California, East Coast – with New York as a major city – and Florida. We have a network of 51 dealers in the Americas, and we have other markets that are quite strong too, like Texas and Chicago.
Bentley Continental GT

“ We have produced roughly 5000 vehicles this first-half of 2015 ”

We spoke earlier about timepieces. It has been interesting to watch the top Haute Horlogerie brands more-aggressively pursuing the female consumer. Is this something we will see at Bentley?

The female audience is important to us, and we are the favourite luxury car brand for female especially in America. This is simply because women seem to clearly understand – and value – this level of refinement and craftsmanship, the stitching and leather, the wood, everything that constitutes a Bentley.

I cannot say that it is a new strategy for us. We have always considered female owners being part of our main audience. We must also consider that they are very influential when their partner is choosing a new car, it is often a couple’s decision.

And then we are also doing special products for them, not in term of cars, but in term of luxury items. We have a luxury collection of handbags, for example. Drawing on the craftsmanship and quality seen in our leather interiors. We are extending our plans to other luxury items, which answer to some of our female audience motivations.

“ We have always considered female owners being part of
 our main audience ”

We’ve seen quite a lot of category expansion at Bentley recently. What is driving this motivation?

We have a brand extension strategy because Bentley is a true luxury brand. More than a luxury car brand, it’s a luxury brand. It is the reason that we can express Bentley values and design competencies in term of craftsmanship and treatment of leather, wood, traditional things. Brand expansion is a way to express what we are through other products, using other touch points.

We have a lot of new products being launched and existing in order to show additionally what is Bentley about. There are the leather goods, then there is also the Home Collection that we launched for the first time at Salon del Mobile 2015, in partnership with Luxury Living Group (one of Europe’s leading furniture makers).

We then have our longstanding partnership with Breitling, which is a perfect example of how our brand can express itself through watches, aligned with very skilled watchmakers creating outstanding products. We also have a partnership with the St. Regis New York, where we have a Bentley suite, which has been totally designed by our designer with unique pieces of furniture.

Here we hope that clients will start to really understand the Bentley universe, where you will have furniture that will be a tangible expression of our skills in term of leather treatment and wood, in a specific design. It is extremely refined. It’s totally unique.

Another trend that seems to be making a marketing comeback is Bespoke. A word that is, in many cases, being misused to describe mass customization…

I feel that ‘bespoke’ has become a marketing concept for a lot of brands, because it helps add value to consumers and improve their ‘luxury’ image. But for Bentley, bespoke special commissioning has always been part of our brand.

We have a department called Bentley Millionaire. We have had this service for a very long time, since our origin, where we can precisely tune and cast a car according to our customer wishes. So for us it is nothing new, but it is something particularly important in this moment.

What we have unveiled is a new way of presenting bespoke, to better support our customers in articulating exactly what they want. We did this with a Bentley pop-up store, which we started in New York this year. Here we immerse customers into a totally new environment, where really work to understand their needs and desires and translate this into design and features.

We reimagined this process as we noticed that customers are looking for something special but they don’t always know what exactly that looks like. Just as you would not go to a Michelin starred restaurant and have the chef ask you what you would like to eat. Of course you want sophistication, but there needs to be direction and translation of the vision of the client.

So now we have a process helping us to better understand our customers in terms of taste, colour scheme, materials. And throughout this process they begin to generate more and more ideas, and we support them to refine this vision into a product, which will be a perfect representation of their taste.

“ Customers are looking for something special but they don’t always know what exactly that looks like ”

Another buzzword is ‘customer experience.’ How do you ensure the best customer experience possible when you rely so heavily on third party distribution?

We are a luxury brand, but at the same time we are an automotive business. We need a distribution network in order to promote our cars but as well to service our cars, deliver our cars, maintain our cars. Therefore supporting our dealerships is paramount, ensuring they have access to the best training so they can deliver the extraordinary level of service that is expected of Bentley. This is standard.

Where we work more directly on customer experience is through our marketing events, using all the tools that we have at our disposal to immerse our clients into the Bentley universe. This can be anything from motorsports to visits at our Bentley headquarters, where clients or potential clients can see the cars being produced. Where they can speak to the craftsman and understand all the detail and attention being put into our cars.

Despite the fact that we have a lot of third party distribution, we have a very direct relationship with our customer, I think more so than many other brands. We do not leave them alone in the distribution network; we are totally involved in the communication process. And we really want to make sure they understand the benefit of being involved in the world of owning a Bentley.

“ Where we work very directly on customer experience is through our marketing events ”

We’ve seen brands such as BMW, Audi and Lexus open retail locations on high traffic inner city locations – without cars – where consumers can virtually browse and configure vehicles. Is this something for Bentley?

Because of the size of our company, our Pop-Up store is currently the right answer in terms of business. That said all our dealerships are currently investing in a new corporate identity. Our retail stores are, as we speak, being improved with new furniture and with a new Bentley identity that is more contemporary, much more welcoming. So we are improving the quality of the presentation at our dealerships.

At the same time, we have our Pop-Up concept for a limited duration in key areas. We have been in New York. We are going to be in LA. We are going to be in other places but not on a permanent basis.

But more importantly, we have our factory. We are welcoming more than 5,000 customers every year to our headquarters in the UK, and we want the pop-up store to be an extension of this. We want to be able to show people that the way we produce our car is unique and hopefully they will better understand and appreciate our brand.

And where does online sit in this distribution model? Can you envision a point where clients could purchase their Bentley online?

We have to use modern technology. We have our website, digital media, digital tools, applications and so forth. And I think for the customer, in the short- to mid-tem perhaps they will want the option to pre-order through these channels. For example, we are going to launch a new SUV in 2016. We have already a lot of pre-orders for this car. A lot of customers are waiting for it and giving them the possibility to quickly book one through the web is a strong possibility.

But in terms of the purchase, I’m not sure that online will be the priority as direct communication is such an important part of our customer’s journey. The customer today – and I’m not sure it will change drastically in the future – really appreciates the face-to-face contact with our representatives, because we sell quite a complicated product.

It’s not so easy or straightforward to properly commission the car of your dreams through an electronic channel. It’s not a standard product. It’s not something you cannot modify. A lot of luxury items today are being sold through the web, but they are just standard products. You can order one of these items, but you cannot commission it and you cannot do exactly what you like with it.

And with the quality and the preciousness of the materials that we use, people like to touch it, they like to have a tactile understanding of what it will become in a car. So will eCommerce ever be the main point of sale? I don’t think so. But it can be supportive. We can support a customer in the ordering process using technology, but the purchase will not be click-to-collect.

“ Will eCommerce ever be the main point of sale? I don’t think so but it can be supportive ”

So in terms of overall communications, what is your strategy?

It’s a little bit of everything. But what is most important to us is to be consistent in our communication, and our communication simply needs to express what we are. Bentley is not a marketing concept that was created because of communication. Bentley is a substantial brand with a lot of heritage, with a lot of values. We just need to be able to express what we are.

We need to have a conversation with the greater public because it is important that the car market understands what we are doing and the dream element of our cars. This is why we go to motor shows and participate in motor sports, which in turns help support our image and public relations. Then we need communication channels, which are much more targeted.

We wouldn’t say that advertising is our main communication channel because there, you have a dilution of your communication that is too big, and therefore a dilution of your investment. But still you have to use it, but we have to be much more targeted elsewhere, which is why most of our investments are basically being spent in terms of marketing through events.

“ Bentley is not a marketing concept that was created because
 of communication ”

And what about social media? Where does it fit into your marketing mix and what does it achieve?

It’s a different channel. It’s another tool. For us it is not the main communications channel but it is still one of them. All tools have to be considered. Social media allows our brand to communicate to a younger audience. We have to remember that many people do not read a newspaper anymore, they will simply jump onto their iPad and have all the information they need.

In order to keep our prospects and group of target clients relevant, we have to use social media. It can be extremely powerful, but it is much more for us a tool for global awareness and again expressing again through a different channel what we are. It is not a tool today that generates most of our prospects.

Going back to the big picture, how do you measure success at Bentley?

That’s an interesting one. Of course, we are a business, and we have a lot of key performance indicators, a lot of business objectives like any other company that needs to enjoy some kind of success to be able to invest in the future. Bentley has to be managed as a business.

That said – because we are a top-end luxury brand – all these KPI’s I spoke about alone are extremely limiting. Because what we deem to be a true success factor for the future is to be able to maintain the Bentley appeal, to maintain our status, the understanding of our brand in the marketplace and to ensure there is no erosion.

So if this will compromise fiscal KPI’s, then they have to be comprised. We are the custodians of the Bentley brand. We are part of the company, but the brand will live beyond us. And brand is, of course, above all the most important.

“ Our aspiration is to create a new luxury market for a
 true luxury SUV ”

Looking to the future, what is the next opportunity you would to seize?

The next opportunity for our company is the launch of our SUV. The SUV is totally new to Bentley. It is a growing segment everywhere in the car sector, but today, you do not have a true luxury SUV. Our aspiration is to create a new luxury market for a true luxury SUV.

This is going to be a car, which of course will be another great expression of what Bentley stands for in terms of luxury and craftsmanship without any compromises, but it will still be a traditional concept, which will answer to other customer motivations.

Our customers have been asking for a Bentley SUV for a long time. They have SUV’s in their car portfolios and they are asking for Bentley. So we are very happy to be able to confirm that this car is coming. It will be the first true luxury SUV in the marketplace.

“ There is a huge investment required to create cars ”

What is the biggest challenge that you feel that Bentley will face in the coming years?

Not only in the coming years but always our challenge is investment. There is a huge investment required to create cars, when you develop new products the outlay is huge and we have to be at the highest end in terms of technology, to be contemporary, to be advanced. It requires a lot of resources.

We are probably the top-end brand investing the most in new products, which is not easy when you think of the technology and quality of our vehicles, compared to the number of cars we are selling each year (roughly 10,000). We are still a very small manufacturer but must meet all the same requirements and constraints in terms of safety, as other manufacturers much bigger than ourselves.

But when you are small you can truly be a luxury craftsman of cars, which is the value of our cars, the quality and standards will always be the minimum. In the past, the interpretation of luxury cars is that they must be beautiful, if the power or performance wasn’t there the customer didn’t really mind. But for us none of these elements are in question, our cars must have them all to the highest standard.

At the same time, we have a strong heritage. This heritage is something nobody can buy. This is very, very important. For the success of a luxury brand, heritage is always linked to the way you can balance your history with modern technology and contemporary attributes. It is always trying to find the right balance between all these values coming from the past, which are often a contradiction of the new.

Of course with our size and volume and turnover, managing all this can be quite difficult to achieve. From a business perspective it is always a challenge, but in the long term it pays off. This is perhaps the reason that Bentley is successful, why we are leading on a global level, not only in the Americas but leading the luxury market across the world.

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