A cachet attaches naturally to the highest quality product lines, but this needs to be nurtured and enhanced by clever promotion. Sheridan Winn cites the case of a bold yacht-making venture.
The moody black-and-white photograph shows a low, sleek boat powering through stormy seas. Underneath is the logo with the strapline 'Temptation Unleashed'.
Enter the world of Pearl Motor Yachts - a place of opulence and luxury, sophisticated technology and enough gadgetry to keep James Bond's Q happy.
The company was launched four years ago by Iain Smallridge. A genial and optimistic man, at 33 he's ambitious and driven. Having skippered yachts in the South of France, Smallridge gained an insight into the high life and returned to England determined to build his own boat. Manufactured at the back of his then partner's garage, this vessel was first chartered and then sold for pounds 240,000 - and the project turned into a company.
In 1998, Smallridge launched the Pearl 45, a 45ft aft-cabin craft, at the Southampton boat show. Within 18 months, he had found two investment partners and secured pounds 1.8 million for the new concept. Pearl's future was set. The company manufactured eight boats in 2001 and was set to complete a dozen this year.
There has been a boom in the past decade in the British boat-building industry. The biggest firms - Sealine International, Sun-seeker International, Riva, Fairline and Princess - are among the world's most successful luxury brands. While Sunseeker builds some of the world's biggest yachts, Pearl caters to self-made professionals in their mid-40s with enough small change to pay pounds 600,000 for a boat they may use for just three weeks of the year.
It took Pearl just four years to establish itself as a luxury brand.
The first sale was the hardest. 'We soon realised that competing with the big boys was about branding and image, as well as having a quality product and a niche in the market,' says Smallridge.
Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand, believes there are three categories of successful luxury brands: the Heritage brand, typified by the traditional Champagne houses, where the main requirement is keeping the brand fresh; the 'Waking the Dead' category, where the brand needs resuscitating; and the New Age category, where a new brand has to be invented.
One company intent on waking the dead is exclusive French jeweller Boucheron.
Founded in 1858, this brand has been overlooked in recent years. New owner Gucci has hired London-based jewellery designer Solange Azagury-Partridge as Boucheron's creative director. 'It's the perfect opportunity to take a brand that's been slightly languishing and do something new and creative with it,' she says. As well as creating new jewellery designs, her brief includes updating packaging, advertising and shop interiors.
Pearl Motor Yachts, however, fits into Clifton's New Age category. 'The criteria here is that the brand is based on either a fascinating, charismatic person or a stonking new idea or service innovation,' she says, citing James Dyson, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Jo Malone, Space NK and Nobu Restaurants.
Smallridge brought an innovative approach to an existing area. The big UK boat-builders grew successful by pursuing the Mediterranean market, concentrating on fly-bridge boats with a lot of external sun-space. As a result, the aft-cabin style, with more internal space, became a relatively neglected market. 'It was seen as the sensible, thinking man's boat - slightly old-fashioned and traditional,' explains Smallridge. 'But it left a gap in the market.'
Pearl brought modern, sexy styling to the aft-cabin design. Its range comprises three models - 43, 47 and 55-footers. With the help of a forward-thinking design team, Smallridge has transformed the aft-cabin design into a thing of beauty. 'The company was changing from a cottage industry to a multinational company,' says Smallridge. 'Everything had to be the same style at the same time; the style of the company and the boats had to work together. One thing led to another. We let the brand lead the business. We called the boats 'Temptation' and put them on high-profile sites in Majorca and Portsmouth.'
Pearl needed to get itself seen. The company employed Kenilworth-based Bite Solutions to create its brand identity, with a distinctive, three-pearls logo and a new strapline. 'Temptation Unleashed isn't just a nice phrase designed to add value once the boats have been designed and built,' says Bite brand strategist Peter Hughes. 'We saw it as an opportunity to differentiate Pearl by organising the whole business around the theme of temptation.'
Designers and technicians had to ensure the brand was built into every element of the boat. The result is a range of motor yachts more opulent than any rival boats in their class.
The interiors - with walls covered in suede and cherrywood - have the pearl logo set into cabin doors, etched into glass steps and sewn into the backrests of seating, and there is Pearl cutlery and towels. Members of the sales team wear Pearl-branded clothing. 'We've probably spent more on our marketing than we should, but it's the extra 10% that shows the quality of the brand,' says Smallridge. 'You have to overstep the mark to get noticed.'
Pearl's boat show stands feature a Temptation bar, serving Veuve Clicquot along with 'Cocktails Unleashed', its own-branded drinks. Says Hughes: 'It has caught the imagination of the industry. The effect on customers has been to create a high-status brand in a short space of time, without breaking the bank.'
There is heavy competition at the boat shows from the bigger companies.
Sunseeker International's stands are renowned for their size and style.
Although there's a huge difference in the turnover and age of the two companies - Sunseeker is 30 years old and builds between 300 and 400 boats a year - there are striking similarities in their origins and approaches.
Both businesses were started by entrepreneurs who place the highest emphasis on design, quality and the latest technology.
Like Smallridge, Sunseeker founders Robert Braithwaite and his brother John began making boats in a garage. Whereas Pearl pitched its entry level high at the 'vanity' market, the Braithwaite brothers wanted to entice people onto the water and began by producing small speedboats. With designer Don Shead, they created a distinctive range of luxury offshore powerboats.
But Sunseeker's boats got bigger and more luxurious. It is now the world's largest privately owned motor yacht production builder and Robert Braithwaite one of the best-known figures in the boating world.
'Sunseeker started as a recognisable range - it had features that stood out,' he says. 'The underwater line section was far in advance of the competition, and performance and handling soon became a trademark. The desire to keep that image has enabled us to retain customers who regularly trade up, and to attract new customers who aspire to one of the world's best-known brands.'
How much part does emotion play at this level? 'It's incredibly important,' says Interbrand's Clifton. 'It's almost all emotion - 99.5% intangible assets, 0.5% tangible. Having said that, in the boat world, the physical product is important. You can have the sexiest campaign, but if you don't have a great product, beautifully engineered, it won't work.'
It's an important distinction within the luxury market. Some brands, such as designer-name cosmetics, succeed on their name alone. The strength of their image outweighs the fact that what's on sale is not necessarily technically superior to high street brands.
'The big thing is to have the right people seen to be using and loving your brand,' adds Clifton. 'This is particularly relevant in the luxury boat sector, where there can be a keen dividing line between vulgarity and good taste. To launch a brand, you have to be careful how you build it and with whom. If you launch at the top, you can always extend the brand down - Mercedes, for example. But if you start at the bottom, you'll find it very difficult to claw your way up.'
One of Pearl's strengths is Smallridge's ability to develop strong personal relationships with his customers. This is an important factor in getting existing owners to trade up to bigger boats and to stay with the brand.
As a result, Pearl has been able to enlist the help of its customers in the promotion of the brand.
Smallridge is confident of a celebrity buyer for the soon-to-be-launched Pearl 55 - a sale that would almost certainly take the brand to the highest level. The next stage is to extend the range of boats and establish a dealership network throughout the world, along with a range of clothing and a sea-sailing school. Smallridge wants 'to see the whole of St Tropez harbour covered with Pearls!'.
Says Clifton at Interbrand: 'The reason people pay the premium for a brand is all the marvellous association it has. The critical factor is that the right people are seen to be buying it - this helps so much it's almost impossible to put a price on it.'
Concludes Braithwaite: 'If you can't live it, you can't own it.'
BUILDING A LUXURY NAME WITH LIMITED RESOURCES
- Have a fantastically good product.
- Ensure that the retail/service experience is the absolute best.
- Be careful how you launch your brand, and with whom. Have a unique brand identity and go the extra mile with your marketing and promotion.
- Find a champion - someone with the right note of association who loves your brand and will spread the word. Try to use their patronage in wider marketing campaigns.
- Treat customers as stakeholders. Build personal relationships - it's about personal service.
- Lead the strategy with your PR. Seize the imagination of your industry.
- Explore any underdeveloped areas in your luxury sector.
- Believe in what you're doing and be passionate about your brand.