Rolls-Royce vs Bentley: Sibling Rivalry and Lessons In The Business of Brand Renewal


If you were in the lucky position to have a choice which one would you go for a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley?

Your answer will depend upon your knowledge of these brands and your perceptions of their desirability and performance. Those perceptions will have been shaped by how well these brands have kept themselves relevant and renewed their propositions over time.

A Brief History

Back in 1998 Volkswagen outbid BMW to buy Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, makers of Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars, from Vickers plc. However they found themselves on the wrong end of a disagreement with the original brand owners Rolls-Royce plc who separately sold the rights to the Rolls-Royce brand name to BMW who were their engine supplier.

On being beaten by Volkswagen to the deal BMW promptly threatened to stop supplying engines for the Rolls & Bentley cars and so brought them swiftly to the negotiating table.

''Someone clearly made a big mistake,'' analysts at the time commented ''It's obviously a big mess. Volkswagen had a car but no engine,''

In the negotiations that followed BMW walked away with the Rolls-Royce brand, the spirit of ecstasy and the right to make Rolls-Royce cars following a transition period.

At the time commentators felt that BMW had achieved the last laugh by walking away with the more globally renowned and hence more valuable brand equity. Though Volkswagen claimed they only ever wanted the better selling Bentley brand.

Realisation - The Impetus for Renewal

Renewal can take many forms be it for a business, a brand or a person and can often be described in terms of three main stages: Realisation, Liberation and Deliverance.

Firstly there’s the realisation stage when there’s a recognition that something is amiss and needs to change. This impetus for change can take many forms. It could be in the form of fear or receiving a scare - for example a health scare that stimulates a significant behaviour change in an individual.

It could be in a business context a fear of getting left behind, becoming obsolete or out manoeuvered by the competition. A nagging doubt realised that you have not kept on the pace or up to speed.

It could be some kind of trauma – a crash, a loss or perhaps an “intervention”

The other stimulus for change we often hear about in personal terms is when people no longer recognise themselves – they see themselves in a photo or a shop window and don’t see the person they know looking back at them. They don’t recognise their own reflection.

If renewal is going to happen this initial jolt of realisation is followed by an acceptance of the need for change, an acceptance of the reality of the situation and the need to act.

In the case of Rolls-Royce and Bentley the messy transition of ownership back in 1998, and the opportunity it represented, was just such a trauma and the point at which a new visions for these brands were formed.

Liberation – The Opening of Vision

Once the need for change is accepted there is a period of liberation when the dreams of what is possible can be formed, when the constraints, real or imagined, are unbound.

At this point the visualization of the end-place where the grass is greener is formed. The slimmer me, the sober me, the better man.

The trick here is to find that place with a new relevance or resonance but one which allows you to be true to the essence of what you were before. Herein lies the trick of brand reinvention and renewal.

In the case of Rolls-Royce this entailed investing £ 200 million in the building of a new factory for the production of cars in West Sussex that would have the initial capacity to build 1000 cars a year. Meanwhile up the road in Crewe, after acquiring the business, Volkswagen spent £500 million to modernise the factory and increase production capacity.

The press release at the time of the launch of the Bentley Continental GT at the 2003 Geneva motor show captures the spirit of authentic renewal quite nicely. It read as follows…

“Geneva, 3rd March 2003... Bentley Motors is delighted to unveil the production version of its new Continental GT. Conceived to be a sporting coupé without rival, the Continental GT is the fastest genuine four-seat coupé in the world. It is also the first all-new, unique Bentley design to be launched in 70 years. It combines all elements of the finest Grand Touring traditions and Bentley handcraftsmanship with some of the most advanced technologies ever brought to the automotive market.

The Continental GT was designed and engineered by Bentley at Crewe and will be manufactured there in all-new facilities that combine state of the art technologies with the unique hand finishing and attention to detail that has been the hallmark of all cars to wear the winged 'B'. It goes on sale this autumn and will bring the prospect of Bentley ownership to a wider audience of discerning enthusiasts than ever before.

The key to honouring Bentley's design past without creating an inappropriately 'retro' car was to understand the design philosophy of the marque and use it in an entirely contemporary context. The philosophy for the Continental GT can be quantified as follows: the car must have a short front overhang and a dominant bonnet. The pillar less cabin itself needs to be sleek and compact while the rear haunches should be taut and pronounced.

 Finally there is the car's 'jewellery'. It was decided that brightwork should be minimised while the headlamps assume a dominant role in the styling signature to draw attention to the most distinctive Bentley feature of all: the matrix radiator grille.

 In all physical senses, the changes the Continental GT has brought to Bentley have transformed the company beyond recognition. The car itself and the renewed factory in which it will be built mark the dawn of a new and thrilling era for the marque.

 But in a no less important way Bentley is returning to its heartland values, as defined by WO Bentley. The strength of any brand is the thought that created it and now it is this that resonates through the walls of the factory.

 WO's proposition was to combine cutting edge design with outrageous performance and superlative craftsmanship to create a potent, authentic and unique motoring experience. Moreover it would have a purpose that took it beyond mere recreation and turned it into something of real use and significance. And while it would offer great comfort and unquestioned luxury, so it would also possess a thinly veiled ability to turn into something very special at any moment. These are precisely the qualities the Continental GT has been engineered to provide and as a result, we believe, is a car of which WO Bentley would be rightly proud.”

The Bentley Continental GT went on to be the best selling model and emblematic of the business and brand revival.

Deliverance: The last element of the Renewal process

This last stage is all about having the ways and means to achieve the vision and in business terms we would call this strategy.

What are the resources and capabilities we need to succeed and how do we get there – what is the pathway? In personal terms it is the weight loss programme, the 5:2 diet, or the fitness regime. The how.

For Volkswagen with Bentley and BMW with Rolls-Royce this meant developing new models like the Continental GT, re-invigorating the brand to be relevant to a younger and broader audience and tapping new geographic markets like China and North America.

During this stage the energy of revival is poured into the first steps towards that vision as the dream starts to become reality.

On-Going Sibling Rivalry

In the case of the former stable mates Bentley and Rolls-Royce it is interesting to note that whilst both brands have thrived under their new ownership it is Bentley that has come out better so far.

In 1998 414 Bentleys were delivered. In 2013 that figure had risen to 10,120 of which 3140 were shipped to the Americas and 2191 to China. Within that The Continental GT and the Flying Spur have been the most successful models.

In 2014 Rolls-Royce sold 4063 cars.

What is also significant for the future is the recent news that Bentley is ahead of Rolls-Royce in the race to develop and deliver an SUV. Whilst this might upset the purists, and have them spitting and spinning, the reality of the situation is that these are both likely to be enormously commercially successful. The Porsche Cayenne after all accounts for around 44% of Porsche’s total sales.

In spite of industry experts at the time believing that BMW had got the better deal, and whilst it has not always been plain sailing, Volkswagen looks like being the more successful in this case at the business of brand renewal.

So from the ashes of disaster the roses of success can indeed grow, given the right approach to renewal and those dreams can be made a reality too. So which would you go for given the choice? My wife tells me she’d like the Bentley. Good to know.

At Brand Fruition we help clients with the business of renewal, whether it is classic brand renewal, revitalizing a business strategy or helping marketing leadership to train & coach their teams through the transformation required for the digital age.