CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Rolls-Royce reaches far and wide to prove its worth

With its 100th birthday on the horizon, Rolls-Royce turned to Volvo veteran Bob Austin to lead its PR machine. But how do you guide a hyper-luxury vehicle through a rocky economy?

With its 100th birthday on the horizon, Rolls-Royce turned to Volvo veteran Bob Austin to lead its PR machine. But how do you guide a hyper-luxury vehicle through a rocky economy?

Bob Austin loves a challenge. When the automotive industry veteran took early retirement in 2001 from Volvo Cars of North America after more than three decades with the company, he expected to spend a bit of his time consulting, and the rest restoring his pair of vintage racing cars. Last fall, however, Austin was presented with a challenge too enticing to turn down. In September, the longtime Volvo executive became general manager of communications for Rolls- Royce Motor Cars North America. Everyone knows the Rolls-Royce name, but what some people may not know is that the automobile portion of the brand had been sold and resold by its British owners. Since the start of this year, Rolls-Royce cars have been made by BMW, following a three-year Byzantine series of business events that first saw the brand sold to Volkswagen. BMW has built a new British factory and a new worldwide company to sell the venerable Rolls. As a result, Austin isn't simply stepping into someone else's shoes at Rolls' headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, NJ. He's essentially been asked to reintroduce the brand with a new model and new ownership. Not only that, but he's promoting a hyper-luxury vehicle at a time when conspicuous consumption is definitely not "in" among US consumers. "Is this a statement for the times?" asks Joseph Molina, president of JMPR Public Relations, of the new Rolls Phantom. (Molina's agency has handled PR for Rolls in the past.) "Can the people who can afford it want it? Who is going to drive this car?" As if those weren't big enough questions, Rolls also has a new rival to contend with. Mercedes has revived the Maybach nameplate (originally sold from 1921 to 1941), and is targeting the same economic strata of buyers. "When all these cars were conceived, it was when everything was going great in the economy," says Keith Martin, publisher of Sports Car Market magazine. Industry veterans note that while people who can afford a Rolls during good times can also afford one in a recession, they worry more about how those people will feel buying a $320,000 car in a world of high unemployment and global terrorist threats. But Rolls' PR messaging is direct. "For us, the key job is to communicate to the world that the new Rolls-Royce lives up to everything Rolls-Royce stands for, and yet is a contemporary car for the next century," Austin says. And he's delivering this message with a blend of traditional auto PR and exposure in places and at events frequented by Rolls' extremely wealthy and affluent target market. Tuning up the Rolls image Austin used his first few months on the job - a time when he couldn't talk to the media because VW was still making Rolls cars at the time - to put together his PR plans for the BMW-owned Rolls. Implementation of those plans began with reaching out to the traditional auto press. While potential Rolls owners may not pick up Car & Driver with any regularity, getting good notices in those books would generate positive buzz, Austin reasons. But he doesn't want prospects to think of the new Phantom as merely a bigger BMW. (Indeed, he winced at a headline on a Phantom review in Car & Driver calling it "the ultimate BMW.") "As with any truly new product, the Phantom has to prove its merit with the most critical of the automotive press," Austin says. "They really are the judge and jury in the car business." Unveiling the new Phantom at the Detroit auto show in January was done with the same goal in mind. Rolls used agency help for the show and similar events, but it has no agency of record. (Austin wouldn't name agencies he's used for projects.) After the show, Rolls invited 102 journalists from around the world to a 300-mile test drive of its new car in the Santa Barbara, CA, area. The course was carefully chosen to include highways, back roads, and even poor road conditions to show how the Phantom could handle them all, Austin explains. The next leg of Rolls' PR plan is to be seen where potential buyers go. Rolls estimates that there are only about 20,000 households in North America with the income necessary to buy one of its cars. It's also found that Rolls buyers typically hold onto their cars for about four years before buying another. That means only about 5,000 of those families are in the market each year, so Rolls has set a modest annual US sales target of 400 cars. Austin is going after a very targeted market, and he wants to be where those people can see the new Phantom. That means having Rolls at such events as the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance Classic Car Exposition this August, and the Meadow Brook Hall Concours d'Elegance in Michigan the same month. It also means looking for opportunities to pair Rolls with like-minded brands. The Peninsula Hotel chain has approached the brand about using Rolls cars for its guests, for example. "A lot of what we do will be cross-promotional," Austin vows. In the driver's seat Austin, Rolls' one-man communications team in the US, has also been heavily involved in dealer relations. BMW whittled down its US dealer network from 41 to 26. It planned to supply them with demo models, but those sold so quickly early this summer that, instead, Austin has been taking cars to dealers when they want to show them off to prospects. He's been doing the same with reporters who want test drives. Major US automakers maintain massive press fleets of test cars. Austin has eight available for press and dealers, so he shepherds those around the county as if they were the racers he owns. Journalist Martin notes that when he needs information on the Maybach, he often gets bumped to Mercedes' PR department. When he calls about Rolls, though, he deals just with Rolls, not BMW. Austin says that's intentional. Rolls has only seven people in its North American office, but it wants to be seen as independent of its parent. He enjoys the lack of bureaucracy and the major role he's playing as a result. "You are a very integral part of the whole business, which I like very much," Austin says. Such knowledge and insight doesn't lead him to believe that current market and global conditions will prevent well-heeled Americans from buying a new Rolls. And as he's driven Phantoms around the country, "you get thumbs up from people driving pickup trucks with NASCAR stickers in the windows," he recalls. Many wonder what impact Maybach will have on Rolls' plans, but Austin dismisses the threat, saying Rolls has more brand equity in its market. "We don't have to position ourselves against Maybach. The first question is, 'What is a Maybach?'" Austin says derisively. His aim now is to tell prospects that Rolls is back. If anyone can make that happen, industry experts say, Austin can - as he's credited with firmly establishing Volvo's image as a safe car. In fact, while there, Austin wrote the brand bible filled with key Volvo messaging, says Dan Johnston, Volvo's East Coast PR consultant. Still, Rolls has had some missteps in its initial PR efforts. Rolls tried to design a car with style cues from past models, but with a 21st-century look. However, Austin admits that a head-on photo included in press kits of the new Phantom caused some auto writers to say the car was styled more like a truck. "Some people have found the front end a little overpowering," he explains. "It makes no apologies for itself." But Austin says Rolls can make it in the hyper-luxury market. He only needs to find 400 people this year who agree with him. Next year, Rolls celebrates its 100th anniversary, a natural event for fueling a wide range of PR activities. "Next year, we will really exploit our history, and show people how we got to where we are today," Austin predicts. Sounds like Austin's racing cars will have to wait a while. ----- PR contacts President James Selwa General manager, communications Bob Austin

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