Writer: Matt Slater / Images: Courtesy of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd.
As the global economic downturn began to bite, if you listened closely, you could almost hear the sound of billions of belts tightening. Nonetheless, Rolls-Royce hasn’t just been riding out this toughest of recessions, its sales have actually been surging, especially here in the Middle East.
In an interview covering everything from the history of the brand to why the Middle East is such a core market, Torsten Müller-Ötvös, the ceo of Rolls-Royce, is in an extremely buoyant mood. With good reason. He’s confident that this year’s sales will actually beat last year’s, some 2,711 cars in all.
Müller-Ötvös says the key to ensuring that Rolls-Royce doesn’t become one of the classic luxury brands that gets left behind is the company’s dedication to keeping up with the times. “We will always respect the traditions of Rolls-Royce but in the modern day, you have to be more willing than ever to accommodate the needs of the customer,” he elaborates. “Our customers are powerful and wealthy individuals who want the ultimate car.”
Not that this guarantees that they will buy a Rolls-Royce. “They need to be certain they are getting the absolute best,” he continues, “and so we have to always prove that is what we are.”
One way in which Rolls-Royce goes that extra mile has been to offer customers a bespoke service, which allows them to personalise their car, taking the purchasing process a step further. Buy a Ghost or a Phantom from the factory with all the standard luxury features and then through the bespoke service, customise everything on the car from the colour of the bodywork to the type of stitching used for the leather interior.
Unsurprisingly, it’s this service that’s most popular in the Middle East, the leading region in terms of bespoke orders and third in terms of overall regional sales. The Middle East accounted for 15 per cent of Rolls-Royce’s global sales last year, almost double that of the year before and during the first three quarters of 2010, sales jumped 150 per cent in the U.A.E alone. Despite all that is happening in the region, Rolls-Royce is proving to be more than just resilient as a brand.
Capitalising on the rising interest, Müller-Ötvös says Rolls Royce is in the process of expanding its operations in the region and its latest move was to open a showroom on the Pearl in Doha back in August. “It’s an exciting time for the region and we want Rolls-Royce to be part of it. The feedback from Doha is very positive and so now we need to look at how we build on that.”
At the moment, Abu Dhabi is the largest single bespoke Rolls-Royce market in the world, so it’s no surprise that this is where the largest Rolls Royce showroom and dealership in the world is located. “The Middle East is one of the fastest growing markets for luxury goods and so we need to be at the forefront of that,” says Müller-Ötvös. “Our strategy of doing well in the Middle East cannot be to simply start selling Rolls-Royce without actually knowing what people want. That’s how you fail – especially in the current economic situation. It’s clear customers in the Gulf and the rest of the region want a Rolls-Royce that is unique and through our bespoke facility, we are making that happen but the way we use the brand is different in almost every region.”
At this year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the global show that judges cars on the beauty of their appearance, Müller-Ötvös handed over the keys to the latest bespoke Rolls-Royce purchased by American collector, Mike Fox. The bright purple model fitted with an all-white interior certainly turned heads. “Personally, I really like the car,” Müller-Ötvös says, “but I do understand it will not be to everyone’s taste.”
He admits that there are those who think a Rolls-Royce should look one particular way but says that it’s not his job to decide what constitutes good taste. “It all comes back to understanding what works in each market,” he continues. “For example, in the Gulf we have customers wanting bright colours that really stand out on the road; there’s nothing wrong with that. In essence, there’s nothing we are not able and willing to do to a Rolls-Royce. As long as the car is legal to drive on the road, we can make any dream a reality. I have seen some really incredible cars built at our headquarters in England, based on the ideas of our customers, through the bespoke service.”
So when battling competitors for the hearts and pockets of the new generation of rich and influential figures in the Middle East, what’s the Rolls-Royce strategy? “In the Middle East, there is an understanding and respect of tradition, but if tradition is all that we at Rolls Royce can provide, then most people will not become Rolls-Royce customers,” he explains. “They’re also influenced by other things, like American sports, hip-hop culture and cutting edge technology, so we give our customers a mix of the traditional and the modern. We’re very happy with the results but we’re not about to stand still.”
Right now, Müller-Ötvös is most excited about the feedback from the first electric Rolls. He admits that while there are those who like the concept, there are many who may not even consider such a purchase. A full report on the car will be delivered in the new year but for now, customers who are interested are being offered the chance to test drive one for themselves.
If the jury’s still out on what the world will make of the new electric Rolls, one thing is certain in the Middle East at least, political turmoil and economic instability are not changing the equation when it comes to buying a Rolls-Royce.