Luxury rap. That's how many described Jay-Z and Kanye's Watch The Throne, applauding a new twist on hip-hop's most ostentatious trappings. The duo enlisted Riccardo Tisci, creative director of the high-end French brand Givenchy, to handle art direction, allowing him to bathe the cover art in a baroque gold. For their most lauded video, "Otis," Jay and 'Ye teamed with Spike Jonez to channel the wild boy mentality of Jackass and gave it a billionaire’s gleam. They drove recklessly. Started fires. And, most notably, fucked up a really expensive car. That's right, they destroyed a Maybach. In doing so, did they predict a cruel future?
Founded in 1909, Maybach was never truly about being humble, despite primarily functional endeavors. The early years of the company, which was led by Wilhelm Maybach, one time technical director of the Daimler Motor Group, focused on producing engines, primarily for Zeppelins and later for WWI fighter jets. In 1919, Maybach turned to cars and started pushing out some of the most opulent cars to grace German roads (including the the 12 of 1930) to those who could afford them. The company pumped out a flagship model each year until 1945, then during the Second World War, Maybach produced engines for Nazi tanks before going into hibernation until the late 1990s.
Daimler-Benz resuscitated the Maybach brand in 1997, debuting a luxury concept car at the Tokyo Motorshow that was designed to take on Rolls-Royce and Bentley (owned by Daimler's German rivals BMW and Volkswagen respectively). The company promised full customization on two vehicles, the Maybach 57 and the Maybach 62 (both essentially thinly veiled S-Class Mercedes), which properly hit the market in 2002.
Never one to shy away from breaking a new luxury brand to the listening public, Jay-Z name-dropped Maybach in 2003 on “Lucifer” off The Black Album. It was the beginning of a hip-hop love affair with the car, or at least what it purportedly represented, that flowered when Rick Ross named his label Maybach Music Group in 2009. While rappers embraced Maybach — and some, including Ja Rule, actually bought one — the brand was floundering.
Of course, Maybach's aren't as cheap as a bottle of Courvoisier or Moet ($350,000 sure ain't $40, it can't be faked). And, obviously, rap's reach to the buying habits of the ultra rich isn't strong. But Maybach failed as its other ultra-luxury, and regularly rap referenced, competitors blossomed (for example, in Rolls-Royce boasted sales of 3,500 cars in the United States in 2011 alone… Maybach sold 600 globally in its peak year of 2002). It failed just as we were lead to believe that hip-hop had real market power not just in the youth sector. Automotive news site The Detroit Bureau covered the closure by questioning if anyone outside the media would notice. The company, after all, has died before and no amount of sexy naming has generated buyer interest over the last decade. Even with a remarkable amount of brand recognition through FREE advertising.
Surely, the audience that believes in Maybach will notice?
Maybach’s attempts at brand promotion were no less subtle than rap boasts. In 2010, the brand launched a two-year partnership with artist Julian Schnabel that included projects at Art Basel and the Venice Biennale. Both events are pilgrimage points for the ultra rich, but the collaboration seemed suited more to blogs (where any nuance for high cost expenditure and decorum is lost entirely) than in engaging real consumers. Given that, couldn't (shouldn't) Maybach have just employed Mr. Ross? Or, Mr. West?
Art, high and low, merged when the very car destroyed in the “Otis” video hit Philips du Pury auction house last March. Estimated at $100,000 (with proceeds going to the Save the Children), the final gavel price hit just $60,000. “Perhaps it wasn't so much the radical liberation of the car's interior as it was the fact that such a stylish crowd would rather be shot than caught cruising in a Maybach from 2004," wrote Nelson Ireson of Motorauthority on the final sale price. His snarky response reflects not just a star studded list of event attendees, but all consumers. With each attempt to revitalize the Maybach, the yawns simply got bigger.
Maybach was no challenge to Bentley or Rolls-Royce, and its existence as a Daimler-Benz response to failing to buy either brand well understood. Sales in the 1000s could have kept it going. Instead they hit in the 100s. Way too few for budgeted ballers — those who prop up substandard luxury goods in the hip-hop community — to scoop a used model on the low.
This is a case the refutes the claims of Steve Stoute, to a degree, and suggests that no amount of cool, taste-making association can honestly propel an ultra-luxury line. Even in a "new," billionaire rich, economy.