Putting marketing at the heart of product development

The turn of the 20th century brought together two distinct individuals from two very different walks of life.

On 4 May 1904, the affluent and daring Charles Stewart Rolls met the hardworking and experimental Henry Royce in Manchester as Royce drove his first 10hp motor car into town.

Legend has it that within minutes of seeing Royce’s twin-cylinder 10hp, the already established daredevil motorist Rolls knew he had found what he was looking for in an engine. He agreed on the spot to sell as many motor cars as Royce could build, thus leading to the birth of today’s ultra-luxurious automobile brand.

While critics say the brand, now 112 years old, is not big on innovation, its global director of sales and marketing Fintan Knight believes otherwise. Rolls was an experimenter, Royce an inventor and Eleanor Velasco Thornton was the glamorous muse that now sits at the front of every car.

“We are an ideas company and these traits are very much at the heart of the innovation economy and in modern day luxury,” Knight says.

However, although contemporary and timeless, Rolls-Royce needed to bring forth its narrative across all its communications. “We allowed our narrative to become dusty over the years, but in last three years we are modernising the brand and the story of Henry, Charles and Eleanor. We have always been sexy, cool and luxurious and going forward with our ad executions we will look to showcase these attributes more,” Knight says.

The choice to put forth these attributes also comes as the brand sees the average age of customers dropping from 53 to 45. While once, the archetype Rolls-Royce customer used to be a captain of industry who sat in boardrooms, now that trend has changed to include more innovators or entertainment entrepreneurs to alpha females.

“We were being let down in the past. Even just five years ago people would say this is my father’s car or my grandfather’s car,” he says, adding that it was a shame because of the enthusiasm and technology that goes into building the vehicles.

But innovation for the brand is not simply about creating a new cool gadget or adding on a feature. Instead, it’s in the engineering of the product.

While marketers are often told to find ways to market a product after it has been created, for Rolls-Royce, it is the reverse. “We start with a strong marketing concept and idea of what a Rolls-Royce vehicle should be and represent before heading into engineering,” he says.

It would be very easy to talk about gear box and engine and brakes, but we need to start with a solid concept and everything else fits very logically.

The convergence of digital and luxury 

To keep up with its younger audiences, the brand has also now become immensely active on social media – and it has paid off. Content and access are also vital when you want to play in these areas. In 2015, the company’s combined social media community grew by 125% YOY to 6,312,005. The bulk of this growth came from Instagram which registered a 740% YOY  growth to 798,767 followers by year end.

In February 2016, Rolls-Royce crossed the one million mark. All this was relatively quick given the brand had taken up social media at the tail end of 2011.

It is a shame to keep our brand and character and ambition a secret. Digital tech is a great way to inspire and entertain clients and future prospects with ideas. Luxury brands should not be afraid of digital.

However, what marketers must remember is to have all of these initiatives culminate into real experiences for the clients – while keeping to its exclusivity and intimacy. “Many clients enjoy the recognition they gain from those who regard their purchases as an intelligent choice. We’re a brand that people love to associate themselves with. So digital is not a replacement for our luxury lifestyle, but an enhancement of the luxury experience,” he says.

And no doubt when it comes to both wealth and digital, Asia Pacific is fast moving into a leadership position.

“The APAC region is fast developing into a powerhouse and the wealth generated here is having a great influence in the west and Europe and America and we can feel it happening.”

Knight’s role sees him lead 230 people globally. Half of them sit in the headquarters in the UK and the rest in regional positions. A large part of wearing the global marketing and sales hat sees him travelling extensively.

But for Knight, APAC is a region he feels comfortable with having lived in Singapore for two years in the late 1990s working with German car maker Audi. “Singapore is our regional headquarters and to me, it is the Switzerland of Asia Pacific.”

With 13 direct reports under him, he is very conscious of managing his time and while he tries to divide his time up reasonably equally between the sales, marketing and ownership services team, the innovation side of things steal his attention a lot of the time. “Rolls-Royce also has a number of innovative projects where I end up spending more time than I should, but there are more than eight hours in a day so I make sure to find time for all,” he adds smiling.

To be a successful marketer of a brand of the future, adds Knight, one needs to find a connection between his/her own personal mission in life and the company’s mission. Unfortunately, much of the marketing in the automotive industry, says Knight, is mediocre.

“I don’t think the automotive industry is much better than average when it comes to marketing.” The industry, he says, is uniformly run by either engineers or finance folks who are fascinated by the hardware.

“Hardware is constantly put up front and centre in the industry, sometimes quite rightly, but the industry is still a little bit dumb about the rest such as packaging and selling a dream,” he says. “In the future I believe auto marketing will become a lot more multidimensional and experiential over time. The digital world will help that; it will be a major transformation, as brands begin to speak to clients directly.”