Commentary

Rolls-Royce: The Fantasy That Dare Not Speak Its Name

 

As a devoted Mini Cooper S driver, I do not tend to know these things, but it appears that Ferrari is the chic car of choice among the uber-wealthy this year. I sense this only because at the August Mobile Insider Summit my fiancée and I sat in a trendy bistro where three of them were parked as if on show right outside the window.  We watched each of them drive up and their well-heeled drivers pop out trying desperately to look as if they didn't notice people looking at their car. "What if they mate and make spoiled little rich cars?" my fiancée joked.

And then the Rolls rolled in.

Suddenly, that line of parked Ferraris looked like bargain night at the used car lot. The boy with the biggest toy was here, and a community of conspicuously wealthy gave it up for the status winner. A wave of Lake Tahoe-ites literally swarmed around this vintage car. It was comical. Within a minute, the owner had popped the hood -- and half a dozen fellow members of the club had their heads bowed beneath the bonnet in unabashed admiration.

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I was feeling badly for the poor souls in the Hyundai when they parked next to this Rolls. There was real terror in the passenger's face as she oh so gingerly slipped out of her side of the car and avoided any chance her door might tap this crown jewel. Everyone else wanted to touch the Rolls. She didn't even want to breathe on it.

Such is the power of a brand that has moved from mere icon to the level of myth and legend. Everyone (almost everyone) wanted to touch this thing.

That is precisely what Rolls-Royce understands about itself as a legend. And that principle comes through in one of the most compelling but ultimately ephemeral branded apps out there. Following up on earlier apps around specific models, this week Rolls-Royce released one for its Phantom line. The iPhone and iPad app lets the user design his or her own Rolls. The technology involved in the app bespeaks the high-end brand itself. The touchable 360-degree rotation of the customized car is smooth and as tight and seamless as the hood gaps on the model.

In a really cool move the paint color customizer lets you go into your device's photo gallery and pick up a color from an image to apply to the whole car. And the email functionality creates a snapshot you can push even in high resolution to your in-box, wallpaper or social networks. There is even a very good embedded browser that calls up the Rolls-Royce video channel at YouTube with all of the luxurious clips of the models in action.

What really sets this app apart as a branding vehicle, however, is its total reliance on the iOS device's two most engaging qualities:high-res displays and touch. On the iPad especially (but iPhone is essentially the same) the entire production fills the screen with images that speak texture, surface. Whether by design or happenstance, it is hard to imagine a brand product that is more conducive to a touch interface. Just as everyone in that Lake Tahoe parking lot wanted to make physical contact with the Rolls-Royce that drove up, everything about the precision tooling of this thing maps perfectly on a device like the iPad or iPhone.

Someone on the design team for these Rolls-Royce apps must have understood the match between the brand's allure and the touch screen, because they made the brave decision to make the app virtually mute. Aside from the barely labeled menus and a few obligatory tech spec sheets tacked onto the back end of the app, there are no pitches, no captions, no wordy intros, no breathless voiceovers trying to communicate the drama of the drive. This is like porn for the ridiculously wealthy: a full-on erotic encounter with the most expensive toy most of us can imagine just writhing in front of us.

While few if any brands approach Rolls-Royce, it seems to me there is something to be learned from this app about the power of leveraging mobile devices as experiential platforms rather than messaging megaphones. At the risk of reopening a perennial battle over interactivity vs. narrative control, there is something to be said for crafting experiences for users in a branded app. Pulling the user through certain paths and crafting environments that communicate a brand's qualities and values is hard but possible here. By starting the conversation mute, Rolls-Royce presses the user into engagement and discovery -- down the touch and tap path -- in ways that language would interrupt. It suggests there are quieter, subtler and perhaps more engaging ways to use the uniquely absorbing and enveloping qualities of a mobile app. 

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