Genesis Motors' Manfred Fitzgerald On The Birth Of A New Luxury Car Brand
Fresh on the scene and backed by Hyundai, Genesis Motors is steadily establishing itself as the latest luxury car company to watch. Most recently, the marque unveiled a revolutionary electric car concept, and Executive Vice President & Global Brand Head Manfred Fitzgerald has big plans ahead for the future.
Meeting Fitzgerald by the pool of the Pullman Casino Hotel in Cannes, you immediately get the sense that this is a man who lives and breathes his brand DNA.
Sharply dressed — in a tailored cobalt suit, white shirt, luxury watch, casual sneakers and no tie — he immaculately, and effortlessly, embodies the ethos of the marque he’s been tasked with bringing to life — cool, confident and cutting-edge.
But, much like his new charge — Genesis Motors — beyond the style and image, there’s also substance, drive, and a fair bit of innovation.
Add to that, Fitzgerald’s past — as a former race car driver in the pits, who then went on to transform Lambourghini into the global force it is today — and what you have is the formula to take Genesis to new heights. Which is exactly where it’s headed today.
Starting out as a sub-brand of the renowned Hyundai Motor Company, one could have reasonably assumed that Genesis Motors — now known for its impressive line of cars which match sleek, modern design with stellar performance — may have struggled to emerge from under the shadow of its powerful parent company; and yet the marque has impressively managed to shine in its own right, and is now on track to boom.
Since Fitzgerald joined Genesis Motors in January 2016, the brand has grown from strength-to-strength, boosted staff numbers from five to 130, launched three successful models to market and, most recently, it’s been creating world-wide buzz with the unveil of its first ever electric car concept, the Genesis Essentia — an avant-garde debut which has titillated the imaginations of luxury car lovers far and wide.
On the horizon are other reveals still to come: luxury SUVs, collaborations, and a fleet of electrified vehicles — so the brand shows no signs of slowing down — and, according to Fitzgerald, they’ve now proven the ‘naysayers’ wrong, with many more surprises in store.
“There were a lot of critics and a lot of skepticism at the beginning of this. Two and a half years ago, people said: ‘You will always be perceived as Hyundai and not as a standalone luxury brand’. But I think we’ve proven them wrong and have really got a lot of good traction out there,” he says.
Nevertheless, Fitzgerald admits that there are still several boxes to tick, with worldwide domination, fresh models and new market penetration — in the form of China, Europe and auto aficionados in Germany — all part of the road map for the company’s future growth.
But with Fitzgerald in the driver’s seat, bets are on that the brand is race ready, and revved to succeed.
“You have to carry your brand and product to the lion's den, so to speak,” he says assuredly.
“If we can make it there [in Germany], then I'm pretty convinced that we can make it everywhere. Now, that's going to be a tall ask and it’s definitely going to be a challenge, but I think we have everything in place to get it right.”
Here, he talks to Tidlrs about the evolution of Genesis Motors, ambitions ahead, and what it takes to make a competitive luxury car marque that truly stands out above the rest.
How was Genesis Motors born? What was the concept behind it?
Well, I think it was a logical step for Hyundai Motor Group as they had, in past years, gone through this unprecedented success story, becoming #5 manufacturing brand in the world. So they then asked themselves: "Where do we go from here? What is the next logical step? Where can you play?", and obviously, the mass volume market is a difficult one in terms of economics, whereas the premium luxury market from an economical point of view makes a lot of sense.
That's one part of the story. The other part is that — I think — the premium luxury market is the most contentious, the most competitive market out there; so they definitely also wanted to show their expertise, to show the world that they can play a role there. I think that was on the top of the list.
How has the company grown from when you joined, to now? Have you seen many changes; and what is the projected growth for the company now?
So the brand was founded in November 2015, and I started January 2016 — so just two months afterwards — and as the head of the brand, I started with five people back then in headquarters, and now we're way over close to 130 people right now, in a relatively short space of time.
At first it was fundamentally all about getting the basics right and laying out a foundation in terms of organisation, in terms of strategy, in terms of set-up, definition of product portfolio, obviously also scoping out the market, how to enter the market, etc. But more than anything else, the initial goal at first was really solidifying what this brand is all about, so defining what the brand DNA is.
Because if you're out there and thinking of going head-to-head with top players out there, you first of all have to know who you are, what you're good at, what you might be better at than the others, and to also then define your valid value proposition for customers.
So I think that was really the most important thing that we did — defining the DNA of this brand and that is essential, because it always has to serve as a compass. Anything that you do in terms of communication, in terms of product development, in terms of product creation has to always be cross referenced with that and yeah, that's what we're doing.
How would you describe the brand’s DNA then? Who's your key market and what makes the cars that Genesis is producing different from everything else on the market?
There’s a multi-faceted answer to that. Firstly, the product itself is only one part of the entire picture. A product is ... yes, the most important aspect of it, but it's not the only aspect of for differentiation. I think that's perhaps why some other manufacturers have not been successful on a global basis, and haven’t been able to really position themselves as a true competitor out there — because they did not take care of this other part of the equation for success, namely: the brand.
So, having a good competitive product is only one part of the whole equation, and I'm not worried about that part. I think we have incredible talent on board in terms of design, in terms of engineering, and in terms of technology — so the ingredients to create a good product are all there.
The other aspect which is a little bit more intangible is the brand aspect. How do you get the word out? How are you perceived in the right way? How do you position yourself so that you become meaningful, that you become relevant, and there is no such thing as a straightforward cookie-cutter approach to that, so that you say: "Okay, this is it and this we will apply world-wide in the same shape and form”. That's not gonna work.
So for me, it's all about really trying to integrate all of those points and put culture at the center of this brand — and culture has so many different aspects to it — but I believe that we as a brand can play a role by giving our definition, our interpretation of these different aspects.
One example of that is last year, as we launched the G70 — which is posed against other brands out there with a more driver-oriented vehicle — we took a conscious decision of not introducing this most important model at an international motor show like the others do but, rather, doing a cultural event in Seoul, for the Korean people. We choose to do that instead because we had the feeling that we wanted to give something back to them, number one; and also wanted to make them feel proud of their own first luxury car brand by having them take ownership of it.
So we staged this huge culture event — a concert in the Olympic Park with performers like Gwen Stefani, which generated over 84,000 ticket requests although could only house a little bit over 10,000 — and we had such a young crowd there, and for the first time, you saw these young people getting connected with this brand on a totally different level.
Yes, maybe some of them don't even have a driver’s license just yet, or can’t afford that car right now — but you're planting a seed and you are talking to them, and positioning yourself as a brand for the future — and that will definitely pay off dividends in the future.
What is the key target market for Genesis Motors? Is there a focus on younger generations (Millennials and Gen Z)?
Honestly, I’ve never thought along those lines and will never think along those lines. I think for us it's always the key objective to create desirable objects, cars, which should cater to people with definite necessities, demands and needs.
We started with our flagship, with the G90, then the G80, now the G70. We will come soon with SUVs, and with electrified vehicles. So anybody who buys into that — into what we're doing in terms of product, but also in terms of values that are important to us — is more than welcome, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, background, or whatever. Overall, I just don't have that set view in terms of marketing to a certain target.
What challenges — production or otherwise — have you encountered in bringing this new luxury car brand to life?
Well, in terms of production — we do have a production plan and volume forecast, which I won't disclose, but it's definitely challenging. What I can say though, is that right now — in our domestic market particularly — we’ve been very, very successful; and it’s actually been a bit surprising for all of us to see just how fast this brand has really taken off in the domestic market, and positioned itself as a true, standalone luxury brand.
There were a lot of critics and a lot of scepticism at the beginning of this. Two and a half years ago, people said: "You will always be perceived as Hyundai and not as a standalone luxury brand". But I think we’ve proven them wrong and have really got a lot of good traction out there in the domestic market.
That said, the other markets where we have been entering — like the U.S — there is still a challenge of just having the awareness. It's not so much about the product itself, because we have been very, very successful with the product — in terms of all the accolades that we have received in the past one and half years in the U.S — but I'm not kidding myself in the sense that it is still nowhere in terms of awareness.
So, that's going to be the major challenge for us to get the word out and to be seen in the right way and be associated in the right way in markets like that.
What are the other key markets for Genesis Motors at the moment, and where are you looking to expand in future?
Well, we're already in the U.S, but we will introduce the G70 to the U.S market this summer. We are in Russia, and we are in the Middle East, and soon we'll be in Australia as well — and we are definitely looking at the other big markets, with the significant ones on the radar being China and Europe, for different reasons.
Europe, and particularly Germany because, if you're playing in the segment of the premium luxury, the most difficult market will be Europe and the most difficult market will be the German market — so that's where you have to prove your point.
You have to carry your brand and product to the lion's den, so to speak. So if we can make it there, then I'm pretty convinced that we can make it everywhere. Now, that's going to be a tall ask and it’s definitely going to be a challenge, but I think we have everything in place to get it right.
I also grew up mostly in Europe, spent a lot of time in Germany, so I know the market very well. I know what the Germans believe in, in terms of values, in terms of what is right for them, so again, it's about the right approach — it’s about understanding the markets that you go into, breaking that down to dissect the regional qualities there, understanding what moves the people there, what inspires them, what sets them off, and what pushes them back.
If you're looking at China, for example — it’s such a huge country, so you cannot have just one approach for China. Shanghai is different than Beijing and Beijing is different than other key cities, so you really have to get your head around that. You really have to take a deep dive and dedicate time to truly understanding the market, the different aspects of that market, and the people there.
What is your specific process then — in terms of market research?
For me it’s all about listening, interacting, going there, visiting, observing and really just taking it all in. Taking it all on board. Will you always be right? I don't think so, but I do not believe in the kind of desktop research work that consultants and agencies and institutes provide. Because once that arrives on your desk, it's already obsolete.
I think you have to be part of the life which is going on out there. A lot of companies shy away from that, because interacting with people out there can be also very tricky — but I'm willing to take that risk. I think it is important to get in there and do some of the hard yards yourself; and as long as you are steadfast and honest and have integrity, I think you cannot go wrong with that.
Overall, I tend to trust my gut feeling in meeting people and interacting with various people. That can be on occasion, a conversation in a taxi — perhaps speaking with the driver about what he likes about his car and what-not, and how he sees it and how the people in the community they see their lives. I just think that those are always very, very fruitful and important discussions, and part of the process.
What does your current marketing mix look like the, and how has that evolved over time with the prevalence of digital?
It's a very good question and I don't believe that there is one straightforward answer to that because again, it depends on the markets.
Where you have sometimes markets which have a great maturity in terms of digital — with others where you have less, and more affinity for print. So it changes.
So, OEMs, producers like us, we do face the challenge that we have to pay attention to all channels and serve all channels — and that's what we're actually doing, depending on the market and the products that we are bringing to the market.
How important then, are innovative platforms — such as Tidlrs.com — which merge luxury living with quality content?
Very important. I think content marketing is the only way to get the message out there in the right way. I actually don't believe in advertising as such. I think those times [of traditional advertising] are gone. In this day and age, it's all about telling your story, creating content and creating good, quality content which resonates with the people out there — so therefore, these platforms which do that successfully and with quality, are definitely the way to attract and engage audiences.
You recently unveiled the Essentia concept car, across a few different locations around the world. Have you experienced a good, initial market reaction to it, and why have you described this car as a ‘turning point’ for the brand?
We’ve had overwhelmingly good reactions to the car — although it was a pretty easy steal to have a good reaction for that car in particular, because it does everything right in terms of design, in terms of style, and also in terms of the technology underneath, as a 100% electrified vehicle.
That's where the future is. But who says that they all have to look boring, electrified vehicles? That’s how we think, and I think that's definitely a statement which puts us on the map and does something for the brand which we might not have been capable of doing prior to Essentia.
So this car puts us in a totally different corner, and I'm pretty happy about all the reactions that we received so far.
I think that nowadays, not only in the automotive world, but in general — there is more attention for the brand and what we're doing and how we're approaching things, so people are getting interested.
And if we can create curiosity about this brand, then that's already very, very meaningful — and, as I said before, we see creating desirable objects as our task — and I think with this one, we really nailed it.
You’ve definitely raised a few eyebrows and perhaps even ruffled competitor feathers. Who might those competitors be and how do you tackle the competition?
Oh, for sure — we’ve definitely raised some eyebrows… and the competitor question is one that I've been asked many times, but I’ve never… and this should not sound arrogant — but I’ve never really paid attention to the competitors or supposed competitors out there very much. Yes, you take notice of what others are doing in that sense, but I could not tell you if those competitors of today will still be the competitors of tomorrow.
So the landscape is changing. There are other players coming to the automotive segment for various reasons and who knows who our competitor of the future will be? So, for me, it's more important to concentrate on our strengths, what we're capable of doing, what our interpretation is of future mobility and that's what we're aiming to do.
I think that's also one of the obligations that premier luxury brands have — to shape the future and to come up with the unexpected, and to tell people what is good and what not. I think that's one of our key roles.
So, when can we expect the Essentia concept to hit the market, and what kind of price range would we be looking at?
I'm still pushing for it to get a green light so that it will hit the road, but once that decision has been made, I think we're definitely going to celebrate.
I couldn't tell you anything further right now, but we're taking it step-by-step. First and foremost, the most important thing is that we get a general green light for this project and that's what we're working on — but the chances are not too shabby.
We’ve seen in terms of Tesla and other people in the electric car space, that there are always some hiccups in terms of production — it's not the easiest thing to get on the road in a mass way. Is that a challenge, in terms of getting the Essentia on the road, that is on your radar?
Well, it depends on the technical concept. There are new competitors out there who are trying to produce vehicles on a large scale with consistent quality and finding out that that's not the easiest thing to do, so — going back to my point earlier — it’s about knowing what you're good at, and knowing your strengths. Asking: “Where can you excel and where can you deliver a good product?”
I think that plays into our base, where there is a long-standing history [in the parent company] of delivering good quality cars. It's true that it’s not easy to manufacture cars on a large scale and with consistently good quality, and people are finding that out — but I'm not worried about that aspect. For us, it's more about: "Do we have the right technical layout? Do we have the right technical concept? If so, how do we realise that in going forward, and where do we see ourselves playing in that kind of field with new materials, with lightweight materials? Do we have the setup for that?” Because there's a whole chain that goes with that.
The Essentia is one object and a prototype — and that's the easiest part of it — but putting that out in a consistent way, that's going to be the challenge.
The price range… what I can say is that it will certainly be more expensive that the models that we currently have on the market — it will be on another level. The Essentia’s technology alone is something which definitely requests a higher price tag, so yeah — I think that it will be the top of the line product for us.
Is Genesis Motors looking at expanding its distribution network?
We would like to see a more concentrated dealer network. We're working on that. However, we're moving forward right now and offering to all Hyundai dealers the possibility to apply for a Genesis dealership. Along with having our own Genesis dealerships, which is part of the experience for our customers.
That’s already happening right now — we're moving swiftly forward on that and the first showrooms have already opened doors. We inaugurated the first dedicated showroom in Seoul at the beginning of this year, in January, and we're rolling that out. There will be more and more to follow so that's definitely going to happen wherever we enter the market.
Many car marques have increasingly invested in brand collaborations as a marketing and branding exercise — connecting with Fashion Week, like Mercedes-Benz have for example. Is that something that Genesis will do more of in future?
I have difficulties with just putting your logo on something and claiming that you are a sponsor or something and you're engaged with. For me, the authenticity lacks there. Anybody can do that and just having your logo to attach on something, it's for them who offer that, they couldn't care less who it is. Just write the check and you're in. I'm not part of that. I don't believe that's the right way to do things.
We are doing collaborations, but always in a meaningful way where we want to integrate ourselves and enter into what is happening there, but just tagging along for the sake of it is definitely not our game.
But if we connect with brands that links in with what Genesis DNA, then definitely. We're doing that also in terms of publications, and with networks. Everywhere where we can really bring something and add some value to a product, then that’s is definitely something that we're looking at.
What would be the first markets to receive the Essentia potentially?
Well Korea and China are the biggest markets by far, but there are two aspects to your question. One is about which will be the first market. In that sense, we tend to strive for introducing all of our products at the same time in all the markets available. Now, that is not always possible, so there might be some time lags, but overall we are really focused on bringing our cars, and our products to the market at the same time on a global basis. Easier said than done though. I can confess.
The other part of that question is that laws and regulations are going to be the key driver of the acceptance and the nominative electrification around the world.
The quota are going up for OEMs to produce and to go to the market with these products and they're getting stiffer and stiffer and tougher and tougher for internal combustion engines, so China is an example of one of those markets really pushing very, very hard on electrification.
What other opportunities do you see on the horizon for Genesis Motors, outside of geographical expansion? What other spaces, or categories of models and cars and technologies?
There are so many white spots on the map there but it would not be very wise to disclose that right now.
But luxury SUVs is definitely one of those opportunities. So we will come out with two SUVs as early as — I think Korea end of 2019 — and then in the other markets at the beginning of 2020. So we will have two SUVs coming out during that time period. Into all markets.
What is the ultimate definition of luxury, in your view?
Well, number one, I think ... I believe everybody agrees to that point that nobody needs luxury. Luxury is definitely an expression which has certain hallmarks, certain characteristics in our automotive world that is definitely defined by the most obvious, is the price. It is more expensive than the normal commodity.
The second one is that it has outstanding quality and its quality is really… tangible — you can feel it. You can see it. You can really see how much is going into this product which has to be definitely different than a normal product. Then it goes on with aesthetics. I don't believe that you will find one ugly luxury product out there. It really excelled and exudes in terms of aesthetics, so that is definitely a key driver and for me, luxury as a car brand, you have the human interface factor which is very, very important.
If you, as a customer, are in a situation where you have a problem, or a question, or a request. You want not to speak to a computer on the other end or a AI person on the other end or anything like that. You want to have somebody understanding you, having empathy for your situation and making your problem go away and go away as fast as it can. I think that human note is very, very important for a luxury product.
So on that note — how do you see the future of luxury evolving, in the midst of AI, digital and technological developments; and how will Genesis Motors as a brand navigate the divide between evolution, tradition and safeguarding that ‘human’ element?
I think there, you have to really differentiate the regions in the world which have a different reaction to such technology. We Westerners tend to see anything which is going on with technology in that field as a threat, rather than as something where we can get benefits out of.
We have difficulties carrying our data with anybody out there to have an intense experience. I have experience that the Eastern world, especially China don't have those kind of doubts or concerns. They are readily inclined to deliver all kinds of data just to have an intense experience.
If you look at Japan, Japan sees robots as a help and not as a threat like in the Western world. They humanize them by having smiling faces on a robot, et cetera, et cetera so it plays a totally ... it's a totally different perception of technology in the East and the West, so to your point, I still believe in human interface. I think the luxury world is defined by understanding the other one who is in front of one as a customer or potential customer so empathy plays a large part.
Therefore, I want to understand you as a customer or potential customer much better by understanding who you are and what it's all about. I don't know if bots can do that, so I have my doubts about AI and that kind of technology taking over completely.
You've been credited as the man that essentially took Lamborghini, and made it into a global performance powerhouse. That said, what for you are the keys in general, to taking a brand to that next level?
For me, it’s about having an understanding of who you are and where you can make a difference out there. Back then, as we started with Lamborghini in 1999 I believe, 1998, Audi acquired it. I came on board in 1999. Lamborghini was nowhere. There was just a big name and it had no content and everybody interpreted the brand in a different way so it was first of all important to come up with basics like corporate identity, corporate design, who are we, what do we stand for? Again, brand definition, brand DNA, what are the core aspects of this brand and how do we realize that and how do we show that to the world.
It took about five years’ time, five years and I don't know how many motor shows just to get to that point where people instantly recognised the brand and understood: "Oh yeah. I get it. This is Lamborghini"; and then we could move on, once we have achieved that.
So I think the core thing there is to have a very, very consistent in the approach. Having patience and not following a zig-zag road just because somebody else is doing something else and it might be successful. That does not mean that you can do that as well and be successful and that's where I think there are a lot of temptations out there for brands who believe not in themselves, but are — rather — always looking at what the others are doing… and that is definitely not going to get you anywhere. That's my belief anyway.
What actually made you fall in love with this area of work? Branding, cars, etc.
I got into the automotive industry by being a race driver myself. So I started off thinking “I'm gonna become a professional racer” … so I did that for five years and you have to come to a point where you just have to be honest with yourself and decide whether that track is going to go further or not, and I just had to bite the bullet there at a certain point in time and decide: "Okay, I'm now going to go on the other side of the pit wall" — and that's how I got into the automotive industry, through racing, through auto racing.
Words / Daniela Aroche
Photos / Rhodri Jones