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[Herald Interview] Seoul anchors Rolls-Royce's Asian luxe

April 2, 2024 - 14:41 By Moon Joon-hyun
Irene Nikkein, the Asia-Pacific regional director at Rolls-Royce Motor (BMW Group Korea)

Seoul is soon to be the third city hosting a Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Private Office, an exclusive design studio where clients can work closely with bespoke managers and designers to create their own custom Rolls-Royce.

“The Seoul Office covers clientele from the whole Asia-Pacific, not just Korea, like the Dubai Office is for the Middle East and the Shanghai Office for China. Believe me, our team looked at 60 places across Asia for a whole year to find the perfect spot. And we’ve determined that Jamsil in Seoul will make the most scenic and iconic studio,” said Irene Nikkein, regional director for the Asia-Pacific region at Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, during an interview with the Korea Herald at an event celebrating the brand's 20th anniversary in the Korean market held in Cheongdam, Seoul, on Thursday.

“You will see what I mean by iconic when it opens later this year,” she added.

2024 marks a milestone for Rolls-Royce in Korea, celebrating two decades in the market, which has rapidly become the brand's second-largest in Asia, only behind China and surpassing Japan. The Asia-Pacific region that Nikkein covers does not include China.

In commemoration, Rolls-Royce introduced the Black Badge Ghost Cheongdam Edition, limited-edition models featuring a striking Lime Green and Galileo Blue color scheme, named after Seoul's luxurious Cheongdam district.

The Rolls-Royce Black Badge Ghost Cheongdam Edition, unveiled in Seoul's upscale Cheongdam district on Thursday, celebrates the brand's 20th anniversary in the Korean market. (BMW Group Korea)

The brand's sales in South Korea have seen remarkable growth, increasing tenfold from 27 cars in 2012 to 276 in 2023. Nikkein observed that Korea, traditionally overshadowed by Japan's luxury market, is now rightfully claiming its place in the luxury spending spotlight. The clientele for Rolls-Royce in Korea has been evolving, reflecting broader societal changes.

"The stereotype that Rolls-Royces are exclusively for corporate titans is outdated here. Our Korean clientele now includes a diverse range of successful individuals, from aesthetic doctors to women who prefer to get behind the wheel themselves,” she said.

Nikkein also explained that Korean customers have grown to appreciate the meticulous process required to create a bespoke Rolls-Royce.

“There’s been a shift from the initial desire for immediate gratification to an appreciation for the craftsmanship and time involved in the creation of something truly unique. The Cheongdam editions, for instance, are the result of a year-long process of thoughtful discussion and design,” she said.

This evolving customer base in Korea is particularly significant as Rolls-Royce transitions towards an all-electric lineup by 2030. The launch of the Spectre, the brand's first-ever electric vehicle, was met with overwhelming enthusiasm in Korea, accounting for more than half of the model's pre-orders in the Asia-Pacific region. But this strong demand did not catch Nikkein off guard.

“It was both a surprise and not a surprise for me. Korea leads Asia when it comes to charging infrastructure and public awareness of EV technologies. So you wouldn’t expect anything less for a luxury EV,” she said.

Rolls-Royce is not alone in its success in Korea's luxury car market. Last year, luxury vehicles -- priced at over 100 million won ($75,000) -- made up nearly one-third of all imported car sales. Such popularity has often been linked to corporate tax incentives for vehicle purchases, a scheme that has allowed for purchasing luxury vehicles for personal use under the guise of business.

However, two months into the Korean government mandating corporate-owned vehicles worth over 80 million won to sport lime green license plates, Rolls-Royce's sales have dipped this year, a 35.5 percent decrease compared to the same timeframe last year.

Nikkein brushed aside suggestions that the new plate policy had affected sales. "Market conditions play a big role, and those are beyond our control," she remarked.

She conveyed confidence in the allure and continued success of Rolls-Royce in the domestic market, encouraging potential customers from Korea and across Asia to explore what the brand has to offer.

"For the longest time, Rolls-Royce was put on a pedestal, almost as though one needed special approval to acquire it, particularly in Asian societies where questions like 'Do I really deserve this car?' were common. But, you know, that's really starting to change," she said.