Ultra-luxury car marketers roll out red carpet for buyers

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Some prospects are whisked to product demonstrations via helicopter. Others are lavished with gourmet spreads, private concerts and museum tours. Still others are pampered at exclusive resorts.

Whatever form the white-glove treatment takes, attracting elite buyers to ultra-luxury cars with sticker prices often well north of $150,000 is the ultimate in one-on-one marketing. To win the attention-not to mention the $50,000 down payment-of ultra-luxury car fanciers who, on average, own three or four houses and several classic cars, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Ferrari and Maybach spend more on high-end events than traditional advertising. In most cases, a brand's annual media spending is less than the cost of a single model.

The battle for the limited pool of ultra-upscale buyers is becoming more pitched in the high-end bracket now that brands such as Rolls-Royce and Bentley are under new German ownership and the Maybach marque is being resurrected in the U.S. after 60 years. Even Ford Motor Co. is getting into the super-sports-car segment, with its Ford-branded 2005 GT that costs $139,995-the most expensive model the automaker sells.

no worries

Yet some aren't worried. "We get more and more competition, but we have always been here and always made money," said Maurizio Parlato, president-CEO of Ferrari/Maserati North America. He said competitors entering the super-sports and ultra-luxury car segments "don't have the brand strength we do."

Ferrari, which markets models ranging from $155,000 to $240,000, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in America this year, and to celebrate, the automaker has invited owners to drive their cars to the ritzy Concours d'Elegance classic car show and races at Pebble Beach in August. Eighty owners have already signed on to drive their Ferraris caravan-style to the festivities, said Marco Mattiacci, VP-marketing for Ferrari and Maserati.

Maserati, with two models in the comparatively bargain-priced $90,000 range, returned to the U.S. in 2002 after a 12-year hiatus. To launch the Quattroporte sedan this fall, Maserati invited select prospects to last year's Concours for private showings of the car. It flew in a Stradivarius from Italy and Russian maestro Sergei Krilov for a private concert there.

But the marketer is mixing the high-end with the lower. Mr. Mattiacci said the car may get product placement in HBO's "The Sopranos," which would improve familiarity with the model and brand.

small piece of budget

A comparatively small part of the marketing is media advertising. WPP Group's Brouillard Communications, New York, which handles Maserati, created ads running in magazines including Wine Spectator, The Robb Report and Golf, among others. But the brand spent only $688,000 in the first 10 months of 2003 in measured media, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

The "bottom cutoff" of prospects for Rolls-Royce buyer is $1 million in household income, according to Bob Austin, general manager communications at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars North America, but the average Rolls buyer has a liquid net worth, excluding real estate, of about $30 million.

That universe in North America totals some 17,000 households, Mr. Austin said. Of that, roughly 4,000 are in the market every year for a new car-making a real case for target marketing. "What we have to do is figure out which 4,000 are in the market every year. That's our challenge."

Mr. Austin teamed with Wall Street Journal's internal ad staff to create ads for Rolls that broke in the newspaper in late 2003. The marketer doesn't have an agency of record and spent just $155,000 in U.S. measured media in the first 10 months of 2003, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

But Rolls' small universe of targets isn't simply persuaded by mass media. The "real deal maker" to close a sale is a test drive, said Mr. Austin, who just returned from a two-week series of receptions, breakfasts, museum tours test drives for the $320,000-and-up Phantom with prospects in Scottsdale, Ariz. For the event, the brand partnered with The Robb Report and RM Auctions.

Rolls' North American annual sales target is 400 of the 1,000 planned worldwide by BMW, which assumed ownership of Rolls in January 2003 from Volkswagen AG. Rolls sold 169 in North America last year.

DaimlerChrysler's Maybach, which sold a total of 166 cars last year, has targeted 400 cars this year at a starting price of $308,000.

"You commission a Maybach like you would a piece of art," said Wayne Killen, brand manager of sibling marque of Mercedes-Benz. A first appointment can take more than three hours, as buyers select leather colors, wood types and trims.

To get the word out on Maybach, Omnicom Group's AMCI arranged elegant test-drive events in three cities last summer dubbed "The Maybach Experience" that provided helicopter transportation from nearby airports, said Mr. Killen. Attendees were treated to gourmet food in elegant tents, described by AMCI President Gordon Wangers as "unparalleled" in terms of quality and ambiance.

Upon delivery, after no less than four months, Maybach owners get a hand-signed parchment certificate. Maybach provides free maintenance during warranty with car pickup and delivery for any service.

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