Porsche CEO Talks About the Automaker's Delicate Relationship With Hollywood

Courtesy of Porsche
Detlev von Platen

Detlev von Platen spoke with THR at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show about why 911 owners freak out over styling changes and how the brand had to expand beyond building a single iconic sports car

Detlev von Platen, president and CEO of Porsche Cars North America Inc., oversees the Stuttugart-based car maker's U.S. operations. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with von Platen at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show about Porsche's evolving business plan and its stealth relationship with Hollywood.

How does Porsche interact with Hollywood?

I don't like to put a Porsche in a product placement, to pay for this, because it is not authentic. It's commercial, and we don't need that. [Instead] you start step by step to create a relationship with people. One day we had 20 engineers who came to Death Valley with the 918 prototype [Porsche's limited-edition nearly $1 million plug-in hybrid supercar]. This is something you can offer, in a very exclusive way — call maybe two or three guys we know from Hollywood and say: "This is a unique opportunity to drive something you will never see again. Bring your friends with you. We don't invite the press; it's completely closed." But this relationship stays. So the next time we want to meet them, we have a relationship that is not based on commercial interest and therefore is very authentic.

You've got some pretty high-profile celebrities associated with the brand — Grey's Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey drives for your racing team, and Jerry Seinfeld has a vast collection of 911s.

The relationship we have with Patrick Dempsey is authentic — he is personally interested to be with us because he is learning how to drive. He is integrated into our race team. We see him as a race driver and not an elite actor, and we treat him like this. If he's not good enough, we tell him.

Jerry is a friend of ours, he's part of the family, he's one of the most expert on the brand. He knows we won't say, "Hey Jerry, can you do this for us?" I want them to be passionate about the brand, to talk about it but not just to show to the world that we have been in contact with some big star. This trustee relationship is very important to us, to have a good relationship with Jerry but not to use Jerry Seinfeld as a very well-known person to communicate to the public.

Like Audi, Mercedes and even Maserati, Porsche has been testing the lower reaches of the luxury market, with the $49,900 Macan compact SUV. What was Porsche's strategy for the car, and why was it necessary?

It was very important to open Porsche. Porsche can be very scary — you have a lot of people looking at Porsche, saying: "That's a really nice car. Would I dare to drive one or to own one?" When we introduced the Cayenne in 2003 and the Panamera in 2009 and the Macan in 2014, it helped to attract customers who would never have bought a 911 in the first place.

Steve Cannon, the North American CEO of Mercedes, said much the same thing at the 2014 New York Auto Show — "Mercedes-Benz needed to be approachable." But offering less expensive cars risks tarnishing a luxury brand's image.

Porsche is an exclusive brand, but we want to be more open. It's tricky because you have to stay loyal to your principles and to your values. We achieved being credible and consistent with our customers by saying that the Cayenne is not a 911 but it is certainly a sports car in its segment.

The Cayenne and Panamera were very controversial — purists were outraged that Porsche would make an SUV or stretch the 911 form to factor into a sedan.

That's normal; it happens every time. And that's a good sign. Because we have a very enthusiastic customer community, they're very strongly related to Porsche, and they think that each time the change comes, it's a revolution. Each time we come with a new generation of the 911, there's a big, big cry for six months. They are so sensitive about this brand, so passionate, that each time we come with something that they didn't expect, we have this first adverse reaction, which over time changes. I have a chance to see a new 911 version two or three years before it comes to market, and I need this time. When I see the first car, I'm reacting exactly as our customer. It's not maybe what I expected, but when I see it one, two, three times over six months, it's like a good wine: You taste it, and then you start to like this taste.

Why does Porsche have to expand with new models?

You have to know how small we are going forward. Compared to 10 years ago, it's very costly and complicated. New technologies are coming faster and faster, and the restrictions in terms of emissions standards and safety standards are getting more and more cumbersome. You need a lot of investment capital, especially now, with all this connectivity, the electronics within the car. You have to think about size; you need a specific size to be able to create a business case — the 911 alone would not be able to make it.

Porsche was the first luxury brand to field a plug-in hybrid — the Panamera S E-Hybrid. There has been speculation about a junior-size Panamera in development, the Panjun, and that it might be a pure electric to compete with Tesla's Model S.

No, but we are working on different derivatives. Everybody is. Porsche is very busy. You won't have one single technology as the response for everything. We still have a lot of potential for improvements in the traditional combustion engine. We might have hydrogen [cell] or other technologies. But plug-in hybrids fit our values. Because don't forget: We are a sports car manufacturer. So what we do needs to fit our values, because otherwise, we lose credibility. A plug-in hybrid for Porsche is a car that — yes, it's a sustainable car, very efficient, but also has performance attributes. Our cars can drive on a racetrack, and you can drive them every day.