Inside Rolls-Royce, the luxury maker

'Nobody needs a Rolls-Royce, these are purchases of the heart'

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A Rolls-Royce customer with fond memories of Scotland once asked for and received a custom tartan interior and handwoven picnic basket set. It cost him nearly $100,000.

Cars are to Rolls-Royce as search is to Google. They’re the thing that brings customers in, but not the way that the company makes its money. Google does it by selling ads, Rolls-Royce does it by selling the experience of luxury. No other brand in the world is more readily identified with the notion of luxury, nor is there one that has greater authority to dictate exactly what that means.

The technology industry is now on a march into this realm of exclusive opulence with the solid-gold Apple Watch, the Montblanc and Swarovski Galaxy Notes, and a series of Porsche Design BlackBerrys. Personal electronics are growing into cheap, easily replicable commodities, so their makers are looking to distinguish themselves with fancier materials and a greater emphasis on craftsmanship. Rolls-Royce has been a leader in both for over a century now, so I went to see how the modern company operates and what lessons it may have for the electronics giants looking to follow its example.

Depending on how you look at it, Rolls-Royce is either a century or a decade old. The name carries a proud tradition stretching back to the original company founded by Charles Rolls and Sir Henry Royce in 1904, however the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars of today only came into existence in 1998 and didn’t have a vehicle on the road until 2003. In spite of starting from scratch at the turn of the century, BMW has managed to resurrect the famed marque to such a high standard that it’s now had four consecutive record years of sales. Neither the five-year hiatus nor the fundamental change in how Rolls-Royce cars are made was able to tarnish the brand’s reputation and desirability. Some brands simply transcend their product.

As enduring as the appeal of the "Spirit of Ecstasy" hood ornament may be, it couldn’t have sustained the new Rolls-Royce indefinitely on reputation alone. The new company operates in a distinctly modern way that reminds me of my visit to Vertu’s headquarters. Like the luxury mobile maker, Rolls-Royce has one single facility housing both its manufacturing and corporate operations. The assembly line is only a short walk from the executives’ offices. Designed by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, the headquarters is basically one giant, delightful advertisement for Rolls-Royce and its ideals. The 7-acre building is dug low into the ground and covered with England’s largest grass roof, so it nestles inconspicuously into the leafy countryside. Vast glass walls and enormous circular skylights flood the work floor with natural light and make all the machinery feel almost organic. "It’s the best showroom in the world," says Rolls-Royce Communications Manager James Warren as he ushers me into a big leather seat in one of the client meeting rooms.

Speaking with James quickly underscores for me the fact that Rolls-Royce really isn’t in the car business at all. He tells me that the current top-of-the-line Rolls-Royce Phantom has class-leading fuel efficiency (somewhere in the "high 20s" miles per gallon), but when I ask him to cite another car in that class, he struggles to find a suitable answer. Maybe the Bentley Flying Spur comes close, he says, but the people who buy a Rolls-Royce aren’t comparing that purchase against another car — they are weighing it up as an alternative to a new yacht, a helicopter, a piece of fine art, or a new beach house. The car is almost incidental to the pursuit of a rare and exclusive treat.

To own a Rolls-Royce is universally recognized as "the ultimate expression that you have made it," says Warren, even by those who are unimpressed by the marque’s conservative grandeur. It is conspicuous consumption of the highest order, and the company is perfectly content with its role of satisfying that niche but highly profitable demand: "no one needs a Rolls-Royce, we are very open about that. These are purchases of the heart." And yet, in spite of its sustained popularity, Rolls-Royce is starting to lean toward a younger audience, introducing the more driver-oriented Ghost in 2010 and the closest thing to a sports car the company will likely ever do, 2013’s Wraith. The average Phantom buyer is 55, an age that drops to the mid-40s for Ghost owners and as low as the 30s for Wraith. This shift in clientele isn’t happening by lowering prices, mind you, as the most affordable of these cars still costs in excess of $350,000 before even adding any bespoke elements.

The personal touch is what truly makes the Rolls-Royce brand seductive. Customers are invited to visit the Goodwood home of the company, tour its assembly line, and peruse a library of previous customizations done for others. They then get to sit in the same glass-walled meeting room I’m in and talk directly to the designer that will personalize their car. There’s no "no" in the Rolls-Royce vocabulary, with the company having already color-matched a lipstick, a dog’s fur, and a McLaren supercar to give its clients the precise paint job they desire. One customer wanted the timber from a tree that had fallen on his lands to be used inside his Rolls-Royce, so of course he got it. "It can be a little whimsical," says Warren, as "customers invest their own passions and interests into the cars."

See next: our factory tour of the Rolls-Royce assembly line

Rolls-Royce is famous for its effortless and whisper-quiet ride, but the thing people are buying in increasing numbers is its emotional resonance. By going to extraordinary lengths to personalize a product, the company gives each customer something authentically his or hers, and by maintaining its high reputation for excellence, it adds a historic cachet that others are simply not able to match.

Among electronics companies, only Apple appears fully conscious of this high-end appeal. Like Rolls-Royce’s promises of "presence" and "drama," the Apple Watch "allows you to see time in the ways that are most meaningful to you." Specs and utilitarian functionality are replaced by more ethereal concepts because these objects are designed to appeal to something more primordial and basic in human nature. The specifics of what luxury is will always change with time, but the essence of it, the thing that will endure as long as the Rolls-Royce brand has done, is the emotional connection.

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