By Helen Massy-Beresford
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Luxury car makers that have learned the ropes in the familiar markets of Europe and the United States are having to adapt to new ways in China, but with the market expected to boom, they have little choice but to get on board.
Analysts at IHS Automotive see China's premium segment growing to 909,946 units in 2011 and 1.6 million in 2015, compared with 727,227 last year.
One surprise for luxury car maker Bentley, a unit of Volkswagen <VOWG_p.DE> was the number of four-door cars it sells in China, where for many rich buyers relaxing on the plush leather of the back seats and leaving the driving to a chauffeur is the way to show the world that one has arrived.
About 80 percent of the cars that Bentley sells in China, which last month became its second-biggest market after the United States, are four-door models, Alasdair Stewart, board member for sales and marketing, told Reuters in an interview. Elsewhere that figure drops to around 40 percent.
"In Europe, if people want to show success they'll have a sports car. In China, success is measured by the stretch in your limousine -- the bigger the stretch the more successful you are," Stewart said.
Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann said customers were swiftly making the shift however, from luxury sedans to super cars and sports cars.
Lamborghini, also a unit of Volkswagen, is seeing more women customers in China than in its other big markets in the United States, Italy and Britain.
Customers in China, which could become its top market as early as this year, are younger too.
"This is a good sign because you can get old with them and this is something we have to take care of, that they don't leave the brand when they get older," Winkelmann said.
Luxury brands, unlike their high-volume counterparts, don't sell enough cars to launch specific models for individual markets, but they can add small touches to lure local consumers. The touches can be as small as white piping on Bentley leather seats.
"We wouldn't do that anywhere else in the world," Bentley's Stewart said.
BEIJING "HEDONISM" AD CLAMPDOWN
A move to ban advertising billboards in Beijing that promote "hedonism" or the craven worship of foreign products is a sign of authorities' concern over public anger about the growing gap between rich and poor.
Most auto executives downplayed the ad ban, but added it may affect their marketing plans. For now the move is limited to Beijing, but it could mark the start of a shift in attitudes to the luxury sector.
Audi board member for sales and marketing Peter Schwarzenbauer said the drive was not really about regulation.
"It's more 'don't overdo the luxury approach,' which in my opinion helps Audi. We are a premium brand, but with understatement," he said.
Audi CEO Rupert Stadler said he did not think the move would impact the marque's activities in China.
For a brand like Lamborghini, the crackdown was not a problem either, Winkelmann said.
"We do one-to-one marketing, getting closer to people, magazines, events, but we don't do above-the-line advertising so we're not affected," he said.
The move does mark a shift in attitudes in China, he added.
"There is a clear will to balance society. They want to cut the extremes, which is fine by me."
BMW board member for sales and marketing Ian Robertson said the move was a natural response to the lightning pace of industry growth.
"I think the government has done a very good job of developing that over the relatively short term," Robertson said. "It's moving into a phase in which it is going to mature somewhat. We see many of these legislative comments as steering the industry in certain directions and that's fine."
BMW already seeks a "sustainable" role in each society in which it does business, Robertson said, citing its HIV education programs in South Africa as an example. He said BMW would not be affected by the legislation.
Volvo CEO Stefan Jacoby said pushing luxury was not in the Swedish brand's Scandinavian DNA.
"In general Volvo is not, I think, a brand that aggressively shows the luxury of our products. We are a little bit more Swedish and Scandinavian and not so much showing but having, so that may be an advantage," he told Reuters.
Volvo, which is owned by Geely Automobile Holdings <0175.HK>, unveiled its Universe luxury concept car at the Shanghai auto show.
Any bid to limit what can be shown in advertising could harm the competitive market environment, Jacoby added.
"We need to follow up how this is developing. It would be a limitation of the car industry. I think it is unnecessary," he said.
(Editing by Matthew Driskill)