Long before he became a knight, George Buckley told me about branding. “Think of a Montblanc pen,” said the industrialist and engineer. “Now think of a Montblanc toaster. No?” He laughed. “There are only certain places that a brand has permission to go.”
I was a yachting magazine editor at the time, working in a company full of managers for whom branding was the new buzzword. To keep clear of their endless meetings, I tried to assume an air of bemusement, which might not have been entirely feigned. When my own publisher started talking about launching a range of cosmetics that bore the magazine’s name, I realised that maybe I wasn’t the only one who was clueless.
Buckley was admirably clear on the subject. As a new corporate CEO in Chicago, he was outlining his turnaround strategy for Bayliner, one of the most successful boatbuilders in history, which, it seemed, had lately lost its way. The company that introduced America to cheap and cheerful speedboats had been building ever bigger craft that nobody wanted to buy. “What they didn’t realise was that they were building a $300,000 Ford Escort,” he explained. His solution was as elegant as it was simple: create a new brand for the bigger boats, improve the quality and raise the price.
Azimut-Benetti is the textbook example of this approach: a marriage of two distinct brands formed back in the 1980s when Paolo Vitelli of Azimut, builder of fibreglass family cruisers, bought the ailing Benetti shipyard, constructor of lavish steel superyachts. Vitelli has sailed the companies on parallel courses ever since, and the principle of divide and conquer not only holds true between the two brands, but within their individual product ranges too. Benetti’s designs begin with a voluminous mini superyacht, the 29m Delfino, with its displacement hull, modest horsepower and long range, and proceed through various stock models up to the 43m Crystal, before opening into the world of fully bespoke megayachts like the 63m 11.11 (price on request) or 90m Lionheart, both launched last year. At Azimut the emphasis remains on lighter, faster, planing boats, subdivided according to size and type, from the sporty and affordable Atlantis collection, which starts with a fun, family 10m model (€232,800), to the appropriately named Grande fast motor yachts that top out with the 35 Metri (price on request). While it’s true that there is some overlap in size between the smallest Benettis and the largest Azimuts, there is no mistaking the identities and characteristics of the two brands.
We are all brand-literate now, or believe ourselves to be. When the swanky Italian boatbuilder Riva recently put its name to a leather-upholstered and mahogany-trimmed edition of the humble Fiat 500, we nodded knowingly – how amusing, how chic – and neither brand seems to have suffered any obvious ill effects. Indeed, Riva is one company whose cachet is such that perhaps the rules of branding as we think we understand them simply don’t apply.
“It’s not uncommon for an owner to have a Riva tender for his Riva yacht,” contends Mike Newton-Woof, head of Riva distributor Ventura UK. “The equity is so strong that plenty of our customers will only consider the Riva brand.” There is plenty of choice. At 37m overall, the yard’s current flagship is the Riva 122 Mythos, with three to five cabins on two decks, 7,000 horsepower and a price tag of €16.8m. It would seem to have little in common with the Iseo, a diminutive, single-engined but undeniably splendid open launch, which at 8m is the baby of the Riva range and yours for a mere €342,000.
These boats represent two strands of the company product range – smaller designs, intended to reflect the aura of the classic wooden boats, and big, powerful motor yachts with a more aggressive profile and a technological mien. A third strand has lately been added, but in the meantime the company cannot be accused of neglecting its heritage. Last autumn’s boat shows saw the launch of the new Rivamare, an open 12m model costing €936,000 that has all the classic style of its mahogany forebears, but combines this with modern engineering courtesy of Volvo Penta’s superb DPH Duoprop drives. It also has a beautifully fitted-out interior that makes it a perfect getaway boat.
Riva claims 40 knots as a top speed. I managed to get 37.6 out of it, fairly well loaded, but nobody was really counting – in some boats the pleasure lies in the journey rather than the arrival. Wave from this one as you zoom past and everyone – whatever they’re aboard: classic schooner, superyacht, tugboat or trawler – waves back. It has the aura.
Whether Riva’s new flagship will pass the wave test remains to be seen, but it will certainly be noticed. The third strand in the shipyard’s production is the new Riva Superyacht Division (which has absorbed the 122 Mythos), where the first 50m Riva 50 MT is currently under construction – a true bespoke displacement superyacht, which, with its steel hull, aluminium superstructure, three decks and 14-knot cruising speed, is unlike anything the company has attempted before.
It is a venture that is driven, to some extent at least, by external forces. “The market is becoming more and more demanding,” explains Riva chief commercial officer Stefano de Vivo. “It requires a tailor‑made offer and added value – in the Superyacht Division we can entirely customise the outfitting and interior decor, to create a product built specifically around the owner’s preferences.”
And yet it will bear the same badge on its side as the little Iseo. No other yacht builder attempts to bridge such a gap between entry level and ultimate luxury under the same name, but if it has occurred to anyone at the yard that this is something of a high-wire act, they’re not giving anything away. “Riva’s branding and pedigree come from a 170-year history, and the image and reputation it earned during the ‘dolce vita’ years,” says Newton-Woof. “Its strategy is clearly working: the first 50 MT has already been sold.” He could also mention that there are three more superyacht designs on the Riva drawing board, up to 90m. “We can’t exactly talk about a gap,” argues de Vivo. “We think of it more as a natural evolution of a historic and distinctive brand that aims to satisfy the owner.” Confidence in the brand seems bulletproof.
Sunseeker is perhaps the only other global yachting brand that can rival the recognition achieved by Riva. So it may be no coincidence that the British shipyard has a similarly open-minded approach to brand management. As the Italian boatbuilder was launching its gorgeous Rivamare at the Cannes Yachting Festival, the UK yard was also unveiling a new model down towards the bottom of its product range. The new Sunseeker Manhattan 52 can only claim a distant kinship to the rapid, ravishing sportboats with which the company made its name, but it handles well enough, goes fast enough and looks sharp enough to live up to the brand promise. It also has some very cool design touches, such as the nifty seat, shower and barbecue that unfold from the transom – although they’re best not all used at the same time.
The fact that Sunseeker’s range now starts at the 16m mark reflects the shift upmarket that many boatbuilders have made in recent years. The Manhattan 52 retails from £908,400, and is the fastest-selling model since the company started building boats in 1969. It’s not just entry-level craft that have grown in size: the Sunseeker flagship is now the 155 Yacht, a semi-displacement three-decker with a hot tub on the sundeck, a huge master suite, four guest cabins, a galley that would be the envy of any professional chef, and accommodation for 11 crew. The price starts from £28.8m.
The stretch between the top and bottom of Sunseeker’s range might not be quite as extreme as Riva’s, but we’re still looking at chalk and cheese. “The brand sits comfortably at both bookends without stretching credibility in either,” asserts marketing director Simon Clare. In fact, he says, the company is becoming known more for its big boats than for its family cruisers. This might partly be down to halo marketing that emphasises the large yachts, but it also has a firm foundation: as he points out, since its 105 model was launched in 2001, Sunseeker has delivered more than 120 yachts over 30m. “We have built a highly credible position in the segment, and our smaller craft benefit from the expertise and experience gained on our larger yachts,” he adds. “Owners are buying a 15m yacht from a superyacht builder – not the other way around.”
There are parallels with the automotive world, according to Clare, particularly Bentley’s move into SUVs. “Fundamentally, Bentley is about GT cars, and that position lends itself to so many possibilities, not least a big luxury 4x4. An SUV was always on the cards – it was just a matter of how and when, not if,” he explains. “In simple terms, we were the same. The moment was right to move up the size range. Customers were ready for the next move, and we grew naturally with our largest yacht owners. They love the brand, the design, the ‘family’; they just wanted it to be larger. The brand evolved with them.”
It’s much the same point as that made by de Vivo at Riva: a natural evolution of the brand, driven by owner expectations, not breaking rules but making them. Sometimes it’s not a question of whether brands need permission to go places – more that they don’t need to ask.