The 2015 Geneva show was a wake-up for anyone hoping for a rebirth of the great American luxury brands. Strolling past the grey Cadillacs with their uninspiring interiors, my attention was drawn to a curvy, elegant new premium saloon that whispered luxury and style. So I crossed the aisle to the Hyundai stand to take a closer look.
Fingers crossed, the Detroit show, opening today, could be proof that someone at the top of at least two of the companies formerly known as the Big Three has woken up to the opportunities presented by a really good, thoroughly American luxury car. Have you seen the new Lincoln? It’s quite nice. And Cadillac seems to be heading in the right direction too.
The challenge is differentiation. In the post-war era, when British car manufacturers were desperate for exports, wealthy Americans consumed English luxury and sporting cars in what for the time was highly profitable volume. They bought Jaguars, MGs, Triumphs and a few others because they were so English, so excitingly different. Cadillac and Lincoln were successful too, producing ultimate American cars for ultimate Americans, reassuringly marinated in American values.
The problem for the Brits came when they thought they would be even more successful if they started exporting cars that looked more American. Do you remember the Austin A90 Atlantic? Its failure had at least one upside: Austin chairman Leonard Lord became eager to find a new home for as many Atlantic components as he could shift. Donald Healey popped that car’s engine, gearbox, rear axle and suspension into a very English sporting body and created the Healey 100; a sales sensation, here and in the US.
Rolls-Royce understood differentiation decades before Donald Healey and Jaguar’s William Lyons. During the Vintage era they built around 3,000 Silver Ghosts and Phantoms at Springfield in the US and the majority, including those from the boom years, were RHD so the owners could be seen driving (or driven in) an ‘imported’ car. It was a simple, zero cost point of differentiation that created additional perceived value for their customers. Decades later, the same faith in your own brand repaid BMW and Mercedes and then Volkswagen, each of whom made impressive profits selling proudly German cars to Americans.
The basic rules of marketing haven’t changed. Differentiation, along with segmentation and an understanding of perceived value, are central to success. A high-end BMW, Mercedes or Audi is proudly Teutonic. An American high-end luxury car should be of equal quality, but proudly American: big, ostentatiously luxurious, waftily comfortable, effortlessly powerful with just a hint of bad boy. These are wonderful, evocative brands with the renaissance potential of Riva Yachts or Triumph Motorcycles. I’m looking forward to their return.