Tag Archives: Bentley

Volkswagen group not profiting from its brands’ equity

_origin_Fakti-kas-tevi-parsteigs-9Martin Winterkorn, boss of Volkswagen Group, admitted this month that the business “urgently” needs better profits, and today’s half-year results announcement confirmed falls in both profits and sales. This is the company, remember, which has targeted global number one status by 2018, and since Winterkorn became CEO in 2007 CEO has increased production by 4m units and doubled its revenues.

One of the reasons for VW’s poor profitability is that it isn’t global in terms of geographical spread. It’s in the key growth market, China, but is actually over-dependent on it, whereas it has little traction in south and south-east Asia. And market share is relatively low in the USA, with the VW brand on the slide. Another factor is that VW is light on compact SUVs, the biggest growth segment globally. A further reason and perhaps the most significant is its sheer size – a company this big simply can’t avoid inefficiencies.

But here’s the elephant in the boardroom: VW’s problem is also down to brands. VW group isn’t merely huge; it has a huge brand portfolio, with 12 brands in total – stretching to trucks and motorbikes – and over 310 models. Paradoxically, rather than providing economies of scale, in the accumulation of brands the collective mass has outweighed the ability to exploit the efficiencies.

By 2007 it already had the considerable challenge of consolidating and managing a passenger car portfolio of SEAT, Skoda, VW, Audi, Lamborghini, Bentley and Bugatti. Each was struggling for both individual relevance and group synergy. Skoda had already begun to produce cars in the VW brand’s space. VW in turn was encroaching on Audi, which was moving onto mainstream segments previously the preserve of these brands while simultaneously launching de-facto Lamborghinis. Bentley was doing a fine job. Bugatti was, well, Bugatti, and SEAT was struggling not to be a Spain-only brand and was being jumped by Skoda. The group was competing with itself, and the mainstream brands were sharing the same market space but without sharing the economic benefits. And meanwhile the world was plunging into an economic downturn.

So what did VW do? Since Martin Winterkorn’s 2007 accession it’s added four more brands: Porsche, Ducati, MAN and Scania. It has also become the largest stakeholder in Suzuki and even consumed the design house Italdesign Giugiaro. And Skoda has stated that it wants to sell on quality and style, while Lamborghini and Bentley have announced SUVs.

VW’s strategy goes directly against the new automotive industry paradigm. Toyota has continued to excel in financial performance. It has not acquired other makes but concentrated on its core brand, which has maintains clear values, and its own premium-luxury brand, Lexus. Hyundai, which led even Toyota on profitability in 2013, was forced into a merger of unequals with Kia when the South Korean business bubble burst in the late 1990s. They produce cars for the same market segments, yet with only two brands they’ve not only managed the situation by differentiating the brands but have grown stratospherically since 2007. Meanwhile Ford has divested itself of Aston Martin, Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover, and is emerging strongly under the ‘One Ford’ mantra. GM is now doing the same in Europe, discarding Chevrolet to concentrate on Opel/Vauxhall. And VW’s German rival BMW has limited its acquisition trail to the very distinct Rolls-Royce and Mini brands and retained the BMW group values across its portfolio.

They’ve all benefitted from a focus on a single brand or a primary and secondary brands. It’s very hard for Volkswagen group to do the same. The VW range’s own brand is still strong in spite of becoming part of the uncomfortable brand portfolio dynamic. But the group’s brand is infinitely less than the sum of its parts. It’s impossible to say what it stands for in the way that you can about its volume peers Toyota and Ford.

That VW’s profits are suffering is not surprising. That’s what happens when a goal defined by volumes is set. If the goal were instead to define and differentiate the brands more clearly, with each given the objective of becoming the most desired among consumers, then the volumes would follow. They would do so more slowly but they would do it sustainably.

Bentley, Beijing and the hybrid halo

Mercedes recently said that the combustion engine is with us for at least 20 more years. No doubt that’s right, but it has a particular interest. The fact that it still produces a V12 is a badge of honour for the brand. And no doubt a purchase trigger for Asian plutocrats who absolutely must have the highest in perceived luxury.

bentley-mulsanne-hybrid-concept-2014-beijing-auto-show_100463149_lContrast that with last week’s debut of a hybrid Bentley. It’s an important moment, the more so because it was at the Beijing auto show – a place where the brands don’t normally make concessions to the distinctly Western concept of sustainable luxury. The Bentley is officially a concept car, but significantly it’s a version of the Mulsanne, a production model and the brand’s flagship: if hybrid technology it can be accepted at the pinnacle of traditional, conservative luxury, it can fit with any brand.

With the Bentley, and the simultaneous Beijing launch of a production long-wheelbase hybrid Range Rover, the time when luxury and premium car buyers will want to know why they haven’t got hybrid power is surely approaching. Hybrid systems are at the apex of powertrain technology right now, and if seen as such customers will demand them.

Bentley’s VW Group sister brand Porsche already offers a hybrid Cayenne and Panamera, but they don’t sell. Same for Range Rover’s standard-wheelbase hybrid Range Rover: they’re not proper Porsches or real Range Rovers. But the Bentley and the LWB Range Rover can change this. If the idea of a hybrid Bentley goes down well with Chinese luxury car buyers, it will gain acceptance for Porsche’s hybrids. And if hybrid power is accepted in the limousine version of the Range Rover it won’t be perceived as a dilution of the brand in the standard car.

Creating hybrid versions of range-topping cars enables VW Group and Jaguar Land Rover to exploit the higher margins of big-ticket products and, in time, as the halo effect occurs, to sell hybrid versions of lower-price, higher volume products at a profit. Larger volumes will in turn reduce the cost of hybrid technology.

China is key to widespread adoption of future electric vehicle technologies: as a growing car market with vast volume potential it makes no sense to continue building only a combustion-engine infrastructure to meet the needs of the emerging motorised masses. Last month the premier declared a war on air pollution, yet the country still lacks a vehicle charging infrastructure. Hybrids are therefore the catalyst. It’s good strategy for the carmakers to push hybrid products in China, and to do so top-down, using halo brands and models as cultural influencers. Plug-in hybrids and battery-only vehicles will follow when the infrastructure is there.

So the challenge for global mass-adoption is one of communications, and the audience it needs to communicate with is as likely to read Wired as Forbes. Hybrid systems need to be positioned not so much as a means to supplemental performance or a cleaner, greener conscience as simply the latest and best technology, a must-have.

A premium car without sat nav? No chance. The same surely applies to the technology which is the beating heart of a car.

Bentley SUV must not be an SUV

Bentley logoSo the Bentley SUV will be made, and not in Bratislava alongside other VW Group cars. Bratislava’s an intriguing place. I first went there 20 years ago to launch the latest Toyota Corolla, when the ancient cobbled streets were still lined with lovely old Tatras and McDonald’s hadn’t arrived. It’s nicer than Crewe for sure, but Britain is where the car needs to come from. Otherwise it’s a German-owned, Czech-built car with shared VW Touareg, Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne underpinnings and a British badge.

The concept of a Bentley SUV has been much debated but it won’t be an issue if it’s seen as having a British, handcrafted core. Forget the SUV tag – Bentley surely won’t be letting this distinctly un-British acronym anywhere near the car. But a practical luxury car is part of the tradition of British motoring – think shooting brakes, plovers’ egg picnics and Pimms; Glyndebourne, Henley, country estates, polo and the grouse season. Putting a bespoke picnic hamper together with four-wheel-drive and a bootload of status makes complete sense. Historically Bentleys were used to pound around victoriously for 24 hours at Le Mans, to equip Fleming’s original James Bond, and to take gentlemen adventuring in dusty, far-off places. The new car is a far better brand fit than for Lamborghini, which has also shown an SUV prototype, or even Porsche, despite the fact that its fortunes have been transformed by the Cayenne. And it’s something the Rolls-Royce brand simply can’t stretch to.

But if this Bentley is to make complete sense it needs to express its Britishness clearly. Traditional British luxury design is understated, timeless, with simplicity of lines and natural materials. It has design honesty. From E-Types to Burberrys, the best British products have always had a functional beauty.

The market for the new Bentley will inevitably be primarily in Asia and the Middle-East, where luxury is designed to be displayed. It is gilded and gauche. Bentley needs the volumes these markets offer but if it designs the car specifically to appeal to their tastes it will undermine the brand. It must fundamentally appeal to British tastes even if UK sales are only a fraction of the total. When the production car is revealed, put it to this test – if you can’t think of a credible British celebrity ambassador for the car they won’t have got it right.

Designing this car is a difficult task. The EXP 9F concept shown last year to widespread disapproval was an exercise in seeing how far the expectations of Bentley styling themes could be pushed. Bentley got its answer but should not simply apply the existing DNA to an SUV-type body as Porsche did by bolting 911 features onto the original Cayenne. The new Bentley should be contemporary, daring even. But it should say ‘ British’. Effortlessly. The execution will be everything.