Rolls-Royce’s barrier to cool is mustard ad from ’80s

Bloomberg News

Most companies would pay handsomely to have an advertisement remembered for decades. Rolls-Royce, however, is trying to get people to forget one, something it has been trying to do with varying degrees of success for 30 years.

Members of Generations X and earlier probably remember the ad clearly. Two stuffy gents ride in sumptuous Rolls-Royces in the back seats, of course. The window lowers: “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?” The response: “But, of course.”

In an instant, Rolls-Royce was no longer the paradigm of classic, Hollywood-style luxury, a favored prop for Elvis, Omar Sharif and Sammy Davis Jr. It became a symbol of entitlement and old money, rather than entrepreneurship and entertainment.

“That commercial caused more damage to the brand than any good it could have done,” says Eric Shepherd, president of Rolls-Royce North America. “We’re still influenced in the public eye by this particular ad that came out in 1984.”

Shepherd, in fact, keeps a bottle of Grey Poupon on his desk as a reminder — a sort of totem to avoid as he steers the brand. Crusty, old heirs are all well and good, but the few who are left won’t be driving much longer.

Rolls-Royce is now focused on projecting “cool, modern luxury.” It wants to woo Silicon Valley royalty and the self-made millionaires of China.

The shift away from the staid and stately came primarily from BMW, which bought the badge in 2003. The sensibility is evident in the product line. In 2013, Rolls-Royce unveiled the Wraith, a car unlike any it had made. The Wraith had only two doors, a sleek, “fastback” roofline, and a massive, 12-cylinder engine.

The Wraith started selling in late 2013.

“Wraith really changed peoples’ opinions about what Rolls-Royce was,” Shepherd says.

Meanwhile, Grey Poupon, a Kraft condiment, didn’t let up. It reprised its Rolls-Royce spot for a campaign in 2007 and again in 2013.

The Rolls-Royce strategy appears to be keeping the brand fresh. In the past five years, global registrations for the brand have surged almost fivefold, to 3,545 according to IHS Automotive.

Much of that momentum came from the Wraith and the traction the company got in such places as Vietnam and Dubai. The Middle East and Africa is now almost as large a Rolls-Royce market as Europe.

Also helpful has been implicit endorsements from celebrities such as Michael Strahan, Lady Gaga and David Beckham — a bit of counter-programming to the Poupon smear.

Rolls-Royce still doesn’t do much in the way of traditional advertising. It parks its cars at wine festivals and yacht shows. These days, it doesn’t have to remind consumers that it’s not just for elderly aristocrats; customers do that for it.

When Rick Ross’s Wraith rolled off the truck, the rapper marked the occasion with a four-minute video, including a discourse on success, aspiration and “new money.”

There was no mustard involved, just a really big cigar.