Bentley Distancing From Rolls-Royce, Repositioning Itself

By Paul Seredynski June 25, 2010

An 18-month product cycle would never work for a Honda Accord or a Chevy Malibu. But in the uber-niche strata Bentley Motors Inc. occupies, you need to be coming up with a new variation on the theme as quickly as Lady Gaga changes outfits or your deep-pockets customers will be shopping elsewhere. Bentley is churning away on a hyperventilating 18-month cycle of introducing new iterations on existing models because the company's research found customers of two-door Bentleys tend to drive their new cars for an average of just 12 to 18 months before automotive wanderlust has them looking for a new driving experience, said Richard Leopold, global director of product planning.

2011 Bentley Supersport Convertible side.jpgThat's a chief reason for the launch of the 2011 Bentley Continental Supersports Convertible - a variant of the Supersports coupe which itself is a variant of the widely lauded Continental GT.  The $280,400 Continental Supersports Convertible is expected to be in showrooms this fall, barely a year after the $267,000 Supersports hardtop hit the U.S. And the funny thing is, when Bentley has offered coupe and convertible bodystyles of the same car in the past, many customers bought both, demonstrating the importance of an ongoing flow of fresh alternatives - even ones that aren't really all that different - in this end of the market. In fact, the take rate of the convertible is 60 percent; the coupe is 40 percent.

Rediscovering Heritage
All this against a backdrop of Bentley's new decision to discreetly reposition the brand back towards its roots as a performance-oriented blue-blood mobile. Although Leopold doesn't directly say it, this might be as much to continue Bentley's ongoing separation from its longtime sister marque, Rolls-Royce. The two brands' close relationship had Bentley and Rolls-Royce long viewed as the same car, the Bentley merely lacking the stately Rolls hood ornament and Rolls' impenetrably cohesive brand image, but the controversial split of Rolls (to owner BMW) and Bentley (snared by the Volkswagen Group) now is almost a decade old.

Still, Leopold says the renewed emphasis on Bentley's performance heritage and the expansion the model range with traditionally-named, sport-oriented variants - Supersports, Speed - has enabled Bentley to scavenge market share from more traditional exotic makers such as Lamborghini and Maserati. He says buyers of those brands have been willing to consider the sportier new Bentleys - particularly if some of the performance hardware is highlighted in plain view. Another plus: a cosseting and stately Bentley that just happens to rip off sub-4-second 0-to-60s is an easier sell to a wife who might not see the glamor in wrenching out of a low-slung exotic car to enter a 5-star restaurant.

18 Months Or Bust?
Bentley will need to get started on its plan for more variants and quicker new-model launches. The Continental, for example, is going on seven years in the market (a new-generation Continental is scheduled for 2012) and one owner insists Bentley has ratcheted prices too high while lagging on fundamentals such as cutting-edge electronic features. There also has been talk of overproduction and hefty incentives - not entirely surprising, given the global economic conditions of the past couple of years and the general malaise of the luxury-car market - and the fact Bentley sales are well off their highs. All would indicate a brand that needs the invigoration of tempting new product.

So in the next 18 months, Leopold said Bentley is going to introduce an unspecified number of new models or variants to "expand" the reach of the brand. That kind of new-product flow also has enabled Bentley to spread the unique pricing niche it more or less owns: markedly more than the stalwart Mercedes S-Class but still less than the ultra-exotic competition. The S-Class owner with a wandering eye may not have the means to jump to the Continental Supersports, but the standard Continental GT ($182,800) likely is within reach. Leopold says Bentley's more exclusive offerings, but particularly the performance-oriented variants - have been enormously successful and he expects the same to be true of the coming convertible version of the Continental Supersports. He expects the Continental Supersports Convertible will handily outsell the hardtop model.

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