Selling Bentleys... not as simple as you might think

Bentley launched its new Continental GT via a live webcast (Bentley).

A new Bentley Continental GT was unveiled this week — online, an unconventional method, at least for Bentley.

You’d think that selling a 6-liter, 567-hp, twin-turbocharged, 12-cylinder car with elegant curves and a handcrafted luxurious leather interior would be easy. Bentley’s recent sales numbers for its “volume” car, the Continental GT, would be the proof. But this wasn’t always so.

Joe Ashworth, Marketing Chief for the America’s at Bentley Automotive tells me that prior to the Continental GT’s launch in 2003, Bentley was selling only 400 cars a year in the U.S. But it sold 2,000 Continental GT’s worldwide in 2004, about 35 percent (700 or so) of which were sold in North America, which he said, “proves it was an absolute hit.”

Huh? Less than 200 a month, a hit? When you look at the sales of the big auto companies, these numbers would be paltry but when the price tag starts around $150,000, the numbers (and dollars) suddenly look pretty good. When I asked who Bentley’s biggest competitors were, he proudly told me that FerrariMercedesPorsche and Aston Martin were at the top of the list and that 80 percent of Continental GT sales have come from owners of those makes.

Of course, I was interested in how Bentley was able to increase its sales so dramatically. Ashworth told me the company’s approach in 2003 was to spread awareness virally. It gave the car to “influencers” in key markets up to two years before the actual launch of the car. These fortunate souls would be entrepreneurs living in Miami, Los Angeles, and New York, a younger demographic than the traditional Bentley customer, both men and women. Pitching the car to women was a new approach for Bentley, and the focus on younger customers helped bring the average age of buyers down into the 40’s instead of late 50’s. (It helped that the Continental GT had a list price under $200,000, rather than the $300k-plus sticker of the company’s traditional models.)

The new Continental GT is being described as an evolution of the original, and another major effort in contemporizing the brand. Again, Bentley felt it had to do something novel to spread the word, which is why it chose to reveal the car for the first time via the web, which it did on September 7.

Ashworth said Bentley targeted its current owner base, people who had owned a Bentley in the past, as well as its list of qualified prospects starting on August 18. E-mails were sent to 64,000 individuals, resulting in 230,000 visitors to its site in advance of the launch. Bentley says it had more than 300,000 visitors watch the unveiling.

The car itself will not be available until mid-2011, so this launch, like the last one, is happening well ahead of the actual vehicle availability. In this way, Bentley hopes to get as many of the vehicles sold as it can before the first one even officially lands in the U.S. I asked Ashworth if we would see any other marketing support for the vehicle, but he said that Bentley is just a small car company without the big budgets of the mass manufacturers — this online effort is really it for the Continental GT.

Given the relatively modest number of vehicles Bentley needs to sell, it may be enough. Ashworth said we will continue to see more Bentley launches, as since Volkswagen’s purchase of Bentley in 1998, it has been able to beef up its product development efforts and now launches a new model each year, on average. We will have to wait and see if Bentley continues using the Web as its primary marketing method. But in the meantime, we can all check out its site and dream a little.

Julie Roehm