By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN Business
If you picture a typical Rolls-Royce owner, you probably imagine someone with white hair and maybe also white golf shoes. These are, after all, huge, cushy cars designed for comfort, just the sort of thing you’d think rich retirees would enjoy.
But if you ask Rolls-Royce customers, the true purpose of a Rolls-Royce isn’t just effortless quiet and comfort, acquired after a lifetime of toil. It’s about the prestige, status — and, yes, pleasure — of a product they’re fortunate enough to be able to purchase while their hair still retains some color. When it recently announced its record-breaking 2021 sales — about 5,600 vehicles sold worldwide — Rolls-Royce also announced the average age of its customers, in the United States and globally, is just 43 years old. That means many buyers are also much younger than that, like in their 20s or 30s.
Like Maxie Kaan-Lilly, a 30-year-old South Florida real estate agent and model. Her Rolls-Royce Dawn is her only car and she takes it everywhere, she said.
“It’s my ride-or-die,” she said of her white convertible.
Dawn prices start at over $350,000, before any options, and Kaan-Lilly considers her car both a mark of success and a tool for business, she said. Clients are impressed when she picks them up at the airport and drives them to tour a property in the comfort and opulence of a Rolls-Royce, she added.
“Rolls-Royce is the epitome of success,” she said, “so when I got to that point in my career I decided it’s an investment I wanted to make because it’s an investment in yourself, really.”
Few other car brands have an average buyer age as low as Rolls-Royce’s. Rolls-Royce is owned by BMW, which also owns the British brand Mini. The average age of a Mini buyer in the US is 52, according to BMW, and about 55 for the BMW brand itself.
Data collected by the consulting firm IHS Markit during the third quarter of 2021 shows that Rolls-Royce had a higher percentage of buyers under age 45 than many other luxury and exotic brands, including Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Lexus, and even Lamborghini.
The reason may come down, in large part, to an age gap between the rich and the super rich. People in Rolls-Royce’s target market — people with enough money to spend a third to a over half of a million dollars on a car — are younger, on average, than those who are merely wealthy. Recent surveys by Spectrem Group, a consulting firm that studies wealthy investors, show that people with between $1 million and $25 million in net worth are, on average, about 62 years old. Those with a net worth over $25 million are, on average, 48 years old.
Spectrem Group Director Randy Wostratzky wouldn’t speculate on the reasons behind the age gap, but the difference fits with the way Rolls-Royce Americas CEO Martin Fritsches describes the brand’s customers. Rolls-Royce buyers tend to be entrepreneurs, elite athletes and entertainers, he said. He does not describe people who just had well-paying jobs and saved and invested carefully over many years, although there are some of them, too. Rolls-Royce customers, for the most part, make their money while they’re still young enough to enjoy it. And they’re not waiting.
“We have a lot of new athletes, and so on,” said Lonny Soza, President of Post Oak Motor Cars, a Rolls-Royce dealer in Houston. “In the past, these, these would be established MVPs and so on. These are the young guys that are just coming on to the scene.”
Some other factors have also helped Rolls-Royce attract customers who are even a bit younger than the average extraordinarily rich person. First, the products have changed a lot over the last couple of decades. Besides the iconic and enormous Phantom, Rolls-Royce has introduced smaller — but still far from compact — cars like the Ghost, which was recently released in a redesigned version with more understated styling.
“They made it into a much, I don’t want to say ‘sporty,’ but sleeker, much cooler version of Rolls-Royce,” Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, a marketing consulting firm, said of the brand’s new models
Most important, though, according to Rolls-Royce and its dealers, were two additions to the lineup. First there’s the Cullinan SUV, introduced in 2019. It’s appealing to younger customers, particularly those with families, said Fritsches. Besides its practicality as an SUV, it fits in better with other vehicles on the road today and seems less ostentatious than one of the big sedans.
Fadi Zaya, a 36-year-old Los Angeles-based luxury car consultant — he helps wealthy clients buy rare ultra-luxury cars — bought a Rolls-Royce Cullinan for himself even though, he admits, he didn’t like it at first. Now it’s his favorite.
“I know others in the younger generation who like the SUV because it just feels younger,” he said.
In his SUV, Zaya got one of Rolls-Royce’s popular options, a “starlight headliner” on the ceiling that twinkles with tiny lights like stars in a night sky. His was customized, though, so that the “stars” are arranged to resemble the sky on the night he was born, he said. (By default, the starlight headliner is arranged to resemble the stars over the Rolls-Royce factory on the night the first Phantom was built under BMW’s ownership in 2003.)
Another factor bringing in younger buyers, according to dealers and company executives, is the Black Badge option package. On Rolls-Royce Black Badge versions, most of the chrome parts, such as the grille and the Spirit of Ecstasy statuette that rides above it, are made with dark, smokey blackened chrome. The suspension on these models is also tuned for slightly sportier handling although — this is Rolls-Royce, after all — the emphasis remains on a silky-smooth ride.
The Black Badge option was designed specifically to appeal to younger buyers who want something less flashy than Rolls-Royce’s traditional bright chrome, and it seems to be working. It’s growing in popularity, said Jennifer Stroup, brand manager for Rolls-Royce Beverly Hills.
“We’re seeing more Black Badge orders than we have in the past, than we have in a long time,” said Stroup. “I mean, it’s a $50,000 option. It’s definitely a big choice.”
Rolls-Royce recently started its own social media and content app, called Whispers. Available only to Rolls-Royce owners, Whispers has the sort of content often put into the slick magazines many car brands send their owners. Whispers also provides opportunities to interact with other owners and offers of things like special travel packages.
More than a quarter of Rolls-Royce owners in the Americas are Whispers members, according to the automaker, and they tend to be younger. The app provides entree into a world of others with, evidently, similar tastes and bank balances.
“It’s just unbelievable,” says Kaan-Lilly, “I mean, just networking, meeting friends, clients.”
It seems clique-ish, but that sort of thing has strong appeal for people at these levels of wealth and power, said the luxury brand consultant Padraza.
“You want to know that the people you are meeting are safe and are your tribe,” he said. “That’s just the way the world has clustered.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a photo caption that misidentified Maxie Kaan-Lilly’s vehicle model. She owns a Rolls-Royce Dawn.
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