Bowers & Wilkins has been in the domestic hi-fi market since the swinging ‘60s. Back then, vinyl was king and In-Car Entertainment meant listening to the likes of the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Supremes through primitive radio speakers. ICE has come a long way since then. While at the Geneva motor show this week, Matthew Beecham talked to Martin Lindsay, senior automotive business development manager, Bowers & Wilkins, about how the firm broke the ICE in the automotive market with a new system developed for Jaguar’s XKR Portfolio.
just-auto: Why has Bowers and Wilkins decided to enter the market at this time?
Martin Lindsay: Our research has uncovered emerging trends in consumer behaviour that suggest new opportunities are opening up. There is a new market emerging, moving away from an era of standardised premium sound. In the same way that the home has increasingly become the place where consumers enjoy audio/video entertainment, the automotive environment has taken on new importance as the place where consumers really enjoy music. High-quality sound has become as essential in the car as it is in the home. This is leading to a new a new market for ‘super premium’ in-car systems that deliver superior sound quality to those currently available even in the premium sector.
just-auto: What factors are driving these changes?
Martin Lindsay: We think that the consumers now have a much better understanding of what actually makes a good sound system, driven by greater accessibility in the home to good audio reproduction. Our research clearly shows in the premium vehicle sector, consumers are no longer willing to settle for a commodity solution, even if it is described as premium. Our mission is to deliver genuinely outstanding audio performance, not just for music but also for the increasing amount of spoken content that people are consuming as they drive.
just-auto: What are your aspirations for the automotive market? How will your product range develop and what types of platform will you be targeting?
Martin Lindsay: Our focus is clear; to deliver the best in car solutions. We are out to confound expectations about what can be achieved in the car. Rebranding an existing system and not having control of speaker locations, materials and size is not an option because this restricts our ability to effectively meet the complex challenges of the in-car environment. Restricted space, a wide range of materials, and other feature requirements pose real issues for sound engineers. To make it a true Bowers & Wilkins system, with the clarity that we strive for, we need to be in right at the start, defining speaker positions, installation angles and the components used. However, it’s also true to say that some of the technologies we can offer could solve audio problems in existing installations. For instance, the Bass Beam offers a subwoofer solution that enhances bass in the front of the car and frees up space normally taken by bulky enclosures.
just-auto: There are already a significant number of suppliers of high-quality in-car audio systems. What points of differentiation do you hope will help displace these companies?
Martin Lindsay: We are approaching this differently. Bowers and Wilkins is not manufacturing parts nor will we have part numbers assigned to us. We will work with partners who will manufacture the components to our design and specification. This is a novel approach that moves us from being purely a supplier to more of a collaborative partnership. This approach is something that Bowers and Wilkins believes will deliver results for the OEM and end customer.
just-auto: Does Bowers and Wilkins only work with certain suppliers or will the OEM define these?
Martin Lindsay: We can’t just be at the end of the line sticking our badge on the speaker grille. We will work closely with the OEM to ensure that nominated partners meet their requirements as well as ours, as we have amply demonstrated with the new Jaguar installation. The current partners bring a lot of experience from the automotive market resulting in good dialogue and an exchange of ideas. We bring a lot of acoustic engineering expertise and an approach that is innovative in automotive applications. It’s a great way to work and builds on strong synergies.
just-auto: What relationship will you have with your partners? Is this just a fast way in to a new market or does it bring other benefits too?
Martin Lindsay: We adopted a collaborative approach so that we could maximise the knowledge and expertise of each partner, both now to deliver a better product for our customer and in the future to strengthen all our businesses. This is an important differentiation between collaboration and partnership or the conventional tier one / tier two relationship.
In a true collaboration, companies learn from each other and discover how each other’s strengths can help deliver an impressive result. We looked for new ways of innovating together and took a long-term approach [five year horizon] so that each partner would have confidence in the relationship.
just-auto: The in-car acoustic environment is very challenging, not like a recording studio or the listening room of a serious hi-fi enthusiast. Does this require a different approach to achieving the desired sound quality?
Martin Lindsay: The approach is not necessarily that different. We analyse the environment, look at the best possible method of creating sound in that environment and implement. There are differences in the reflections, differing absorption rates of material but the goal is the same, creating a great sound experience. I think that Bowers and Wilkins is also bringing a visual element not readily seen in automotive. We have design elements that are a fundamental part of generating great sound, but they also look really good. For instance the Kevlar is not used for its aesthetics but for its material properties. We have a form follows function approach and I think that is refreshing for automotive designers.
just-auto: In the automotive market, cost pressure is intense. How will you adapt to delivering in this very competitive industry?
Martin Lindsay: Our systems are positioned in a new super-premium sector where demand is a lot les price elastic, allowing us to have a profitable business at relatively low volumes. Our customers will be able to make good margins on Bowers & Wilkins options, significantly increasing the profitability of each vehicle sale. This reflects the vehicle market, where manufacturers of super-premium vehicles are amongst the most profitable in the industry.
just-auto: How important is brand in the automotive premium audio market? Does this change by region and what is your level of brand recognition?
Martin Lindsay: In most major markets for luxury cars, brand is very important. There are interesting differences between regions and even within Europe. The Japanese, for example, place a very high value on luxury brands while in the US, features and performance are more important.
Our brand awareness comes from both our home product and the use of our speakers in reference applications like the famous Abbey Road recording studios, giving us very strong brand credentials that can be quickly rolled out into the luxury automotive market. The buyer may not immediately recognise the brand, but he or she values the reassurance that it is founded on proven quality and high performance at the top level. With a sell like a car audio option, this is relatively easy to explain in the showroom or through sales material. The Maslow hierarchy of needs describes this well when it suggests that ‘self actualisation’ and ‘the esteem of peers’ are important to affluent consumers. This makes presentation of the brand, both in sales material and in the vehicle, a critical part of delivering satisfaction for the end user.
Formed in 1966, Bowers & Wilkins’ products are available from over 3,000 retailers in 62 countries around the world, making it Britain’s leading exporter of hi-fi speakers. Since 2000 several dedicated B&W showrooms have opened around the world, and in 2005 the company received the Queen’s Award for Innovation.
The Bowers & Wilkins Premium Sound System comes fitted as standard equipment in all Jaguar XKR Portfolios. The XKR Portfolio presale is underway and Jaguar expects market introduction to start in July 2007. The system uses many of the same design and development techniques that Bowers & Wilkins has perfected in its home and recording studio products to help solve the challenges of recreating great sound in the car.
Kevlar is a hallmark of Bowers & Wilkins’ mid-range speakers.