• Mar 9, 2011
"Happiness isn't around the corner. Happiness IS the corner." So said an ad for BMW created in 1996 for the Z3. In the TV version (see the video at the very bottom after the break), a heavy-metal music track underlined the idea, which was carried over to magazines and billboards.

I'm reminded of that ad, one of the more perfect expressions of the BMW brand I have ever seen, this week as I take in the Bavarian automaker's plan to launch vehicles powered by "alternative" powertrains under the "i" sub-brand: as in, yes, iPad, iPod, iMac. So far, I'm not hearing about Apple filing trademark infractions. It is, I believe, also "i" as i Isetta, the last time BMW brought out a mini city car. "I" for innovation probably figures into the choice, as well.

The campaign was literally meant to attract more people who were not necessarily driving enthusiasts to the brand.
BMW has brand issues. Take the Super Bowl on Feb. 6. BMW ran two ads in the big game for a cost of between $5 and $6 million. One ad was to push diesel engines. Another was to push the fact that all X3 crossovers are now being built at BMW's plant in South Carolina. "Designed in America. Built in America," says the voiceover at the end of this ad. How about using the big game to push the core of your brand equity – driving excitement. How about an ad that says: "aspire to own and drive this marvelous machine."

Something has gone horribly wrong at BMW. And I think I know what it is. Back in 2006, then- BMW marketing director Jack Pitney (who tragically died in 2010) shared with me a Powerpoint strategy showing how far too many people, in his mind, weren't considering a BMW because they were intimidated or otherwise put off by the performance image of the brand. It was this finding that led BMW to first do a corporate ad campaign touting BMW's independent ownership, and then the softer "Joy of Driving" campaign that ran most of last year. It was literally meant to advance a "softer side" of BMW, and attract more people who were not necessarily driving enthusiasts to the brand.

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BMW has grappled with an expanding brand portfolio and its own ambitions of growth for a decade and a half.
BMW has long been particular about its brand equity and managing it. It has been the most hyper-focused brand in the auto industry. "The Ultimate Driving Machine" positioning dates back to when Nixon was still president. While other companies and brands waffled, wobbled and changed brand positioning as often as I change the oil in my lawnmower, there was BMW going steadily and reliably year after year. It was the envy of other companies.

It makes me wary to think that BMW is embarking on launching a new sub-brand, starting in 2013 when the first two cars hit showrooms, while it still seems to be adrift on its core brand. Mind you, I don't believe BMW executives in charge think they are adrift; perhaps, "on the wrong course" is a more apt description. In any case, they seem sure of their strategy of trying to expand the image and reach of the brand, especially in the U.S, to reflect U.S. investments, as well as what it hopes is more accessibility. You know – make the BMW tent bigger for more people.

The BMW "i" brand, from what we understand, will not be like Mercedes-Benz's Smart brand. While the Mercedes star-logo is not on the golf-cart-like Smart Fortwo, BMW will have the BMW blue and white roundel on the "i" cars. I know that part of the necessity of the "i" brand is to help BMW meet tougher fuel economy and C02 standards. But I hope it does more to properly flank the BMW brand than smart has done for Mercedes.

The first vehicles will be the i3 electric vehicle and i8 plug-in hybrid. The cars will be small, front-wheel drive vehicles.

2013 bMW i3 BMW i8 Spy Shots
BMW i3 and i8 spy shots – Click above for high-res image galleries

From what we understand, "i" will only be on the alternative drivetrain vehicles. The front-drive cars BMW is developing that won't be badged as MINIs, will, we think, have yet another brand or sub-brand.

BMW has grappled with an expanding brand portfolio and its own ambitions of growth for a decade and a half. The company has done a nice job of keeping Mini separate, while still fostering the connections between Mini and BMW under the hood and in the engineering. Rolls-Royce under BMW is hard to measure because sales are so small year to year, but the vehicles have probably come out better under the Bavarians than they would have under anyone else's ownership. I do know that the company looked at buying Volvo from Ford, but thought better of it after its disastrous acquisition of the Rover Group in the 1990s. It's hard to imagine the cultures of Volvo and BMW combining to anything good. That was a smart move. Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don't make.

Building a sub-brand for these cars may be the right way to go. But it will be good or bad in the marketing executions. And that's what worries me.

In addition to announcing the new models and new brand, BMW said that it has invested $100 million to create BMW i Ventures, a New York-based venture capital division that the company says will "significantly expand its range of mobility services over the years ahead." BMW i Ventures has purchased a stake in New York-based My City Way, which offers software providing information about public transportation, parking, and local entertainment in more than 40 cities in the United States.

I can see this Powerpoint, too, without someone actually having showed it to me. The idea is to redefine "performance" and position BMW as the vehicle that performs the best in every way; connectivity as well as driving.

BMW is starting to feel a lot like Toyota in how it goes about its business and its brand.
They should be careful. While BMW is redefining performance for us according to its Powerpoint presentation, the brand still stands for, or should stand for, an exciting ride for people who love to drive. That excitement ultimately has to be in the cars and crossovers. And it largely still is despite a few misfires. But it also needs to be in the brand's ads, social media messages and the special things it does to fly its brand flag (think BMW Films).

BMW late last year parted way with its ad agency – Austin, Texas-based GSD&M. Presently, the automaker is utilizing other agencies it has on its roster: Kirshenbaum & Bond/The Media Kitchen and Universal McCann. But what BMW needs, I believe, is a new ad agency of record that will, in part, challenge the assumptions about the brand that the company now embraces. With all these sub-brands showing up at a time when the BMW core brand is muddled demands a dynamic ad agency partner to help them navigate this journey.

"Joy of Driving." "Built in America." Electric front-drive city cars. BMW is starting to feel a lot like Toyota in how it goes about its business and its brand – what with Toyota advertising its assembly plants and how it is working on a self-powered rollercoaster, while it forgets that it's interiors have become shockingly bad and shoddy.

I fear BMW's image is becoming watered down like whiskey at a dishonest bar, or the experience of going to a ball game in an open-air stadium without being able to fire up a cigar. The whole brand feels like it is moving to be rated PG-13. And BMW is a brand that needs a little R-rated content mixed in to stay true to what it is.

Remember. Happiness IS the freakin' corner.



David Kiley is author of "Driven: Inside BMW, The Most Admired Car Company in the World," John Wiley and Sons, 2004.


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  • 85 Comments
      • 3 Years Ago
      Yes.

      Next question.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Did you really just call that heavy metal?

      That's electronica... which is about as close to heavy metal as it is to bluegrass or hip-hop.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I remember people saying "BMWs are for drivers, Mercedes are to be driven in" and now I feel like it is flipped or least Merc is gaining some headway in driving experience.

      Even their motorcycles are becoming more soft. Besides the 1000RR and HP2, the GS line was way harder back in the day.
      • 3 Years Ago
      BMW has become a bit too soft to be a pure, enthusiast brand and it wasn't just one thing that did it either.

      The Z4 lost some of its rawness when it was turned into a hardtop roadster, versus being either a soft-top roadster or a hard-top coupe. Don't get me started on when they stopped making a proper Z4 M roadster/coupe, release M variants of the X5 and X6, then bring out a weak-sauced Z4 35is that doesn't handle quite as crisp as the Z4 35i.

      Then came the 5 GT, the discontinuation of the 5 Touring (at least, for US/CA) and talk about a 3 GT replacing the 3 Touring.

      The new X3 lost the manual transmission as a standard or optional feature, the meh styling of the 5 and 7-series. I know the X3 lost the manual transmission due to sales and cost of certification, but I was looking forward to getting one before I heard the bad news (I wasn't quite ready to pick one up, nor was I able to even find one in the area with the options I wanted).

      BMW hasn't taken the R8 or the SLS AMG that serious and I think that is not helping the loss of the enthusiast image. Sure, the new i8 looks like an interesting car and might compete with the other halo cars, but I can't really say that without any further information.

      The other thing that hasn't helped BMW is the recent survey of 1-series owners thinking that their cars are FWD vs RWD. A lot of this comes down to the owner's lack of understanding of the differences, but also the dealers not caring about making the differentiation as it might impact sales (ew, I've heard of bad things about RWD cars on ice, snow, rain, or dry conditions).

      Both Audi and MB aren't doing that much better as they continue to reach for increased sales and volume.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Z$,

        The interior and ergonomics were factors in my not choosing an 335xi or 335is over an Audi S5. The interior of the Z4 and the X5/X6 are pretty decent... for a BMW. I agree that Audi has taken the lead in terms of exterior and interior design, with MB trying to keep up.
        • 3 Years Ago
        At least Audi's got better looking...

        But regarding BMW, we know they're doing this to sell more cars, but if you're just trying to be a status brand, for goodness sake, step up your interiors! A family member has a '09 535 and I've been in hospital rooms that look more welcoming than the interior in that car! At least Audi gives you real leather standard and the Japs give you flashy gauges with pretty colors.
      • 3 Years Ago
      As an American, I couldn't care less if BMW is getting soft, hard, or going under. I think more Americans should be thinking about driving American cars these days, and there are plenty of good choices.
        • 3 Years Ago
        I agree if you're shopping for a BMW, you need to give Cadillac a look. However, if you're shopping for a driver's car, I'm not sure what American marquee offers such a thing without breaking the bank on a Corvette. And while on the subject, I've noticed that any desirable American car is always very costly. Until the Fiesta and Focus, I've never seen anything American and under $25k that gets my attention.
        • 3 Years Ago
        If I were presently shopping for a new, fun to drive and sporty car, I'd be taking a serous look at the Cadillac CTS models. All three body styles are interesting, and though the V is a pig, it's no doubt, very sporty. The new Mustang Boss and GT500s warrant a close look; build quality and engineering are much improved over older versions. I can't live with a strict 2-seater, so Corvette is out...but they're very nice, and now better built, as well... The new Z06 is a monster. Heck, I'd even consider a Tesla, for a toy; I think a fast electric would be a blast to play with.

        None of those are 100% American-made, but at least they put Americans to work, and most profits go to American companies. What am I driving..? I've got two late-model Mustangs for daily driving ('08 Bullitt + '09 GT-500KR), thanks. Though I enjoy my 'stangs, the newer ones are even better, and I expect the 2014 models to be better still.
        While I don't dislike cars not built here (and I very much admire some new Porsches), it's time to drive American.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Out of genuine curiosity, would you share with us your top three list of what you consider to be genuine driver's cars, made in America by American companies? And could you clarify whether you mean USA or North America (ie. including Canada and Mexico)? About the closest I can think of are some of the rally versions of the Ford Focus, but they weren't available here nor were they built here. Next on my list might be the Corvette and the Mustang. I'd definitely test drive them if I were in the market today. What else you got?
        • 3 Years Ago
        I would agree, except none of the American makers offer anything like the BMW, or even Honda, or Subaru.

        They are getting better, but if you want anything that's not "vanilla on wheels", you have to settle for a rwd V8 muscle car, which I love, or a Corvette. If none of those suit your fancy, you are stuck with a truck, SUV/CUV, or some boring fwd sedan. We offer no turbo'd awd sport compacts, or sporty hatches and wagons.

        The Cadillacs are nice, but do not have the same sporty appeal of BMW while Lincoln is practically dead.

        There are too many segments/sub-segments the US Big 3 choose to ignore, and until that day comes, it is hard to expect we all drive American cars.

        PS. This is coming from someone who has never even owned a car from a foreign make.
      • 3 Years Ago
      The front-drive cars will not be another brand or sub-brand. BMW has made it explicitly clear that they will be BMWs, even to the point that the 1-Series will be FWD (as well as the Z2). They would have done so already for the coming generation, except that they're too far along on the 1-Series to change it now.

      Funny this article makes no mention of powertrains really at all... which is a large part of what makes a BMW a BMW. What of the turbos, 4cyl, and coming 3cyl engine?
      • 3 Years Ago
      I've said it before, I'll say it again.

      Companies that go mainstream lose their enthusiast credibility.

      The appliance buyers think there is a reputation because enthusiasts made the reputation credible.

      Now they are chasing the appliance buyers, and pushing the enthusiasts to the back burner, or out completely.

      Chasing the almighty dollar. They make money by happening to sell cars. They don't sell CARS to make a living.

      Henry Ford said that a company that makes only money is a poor company indeed. He would be appalled at that current state of the industry, although maybe not surprised, other than the huge extent of the graft and greed that has wedged out pride and technical competence.
        • 3 Years Ago
        "Companies that go mainstream lose their enthusiast credibility."

        I think there is some element of truth to that statement, but I don't think it is quite that drastic.

        Toyota is an extreme case, but then you look at the "Big 3" and they gained enthusiasts by making the car mainstream, and maintaining those, despite the 70s, dwindling market share to foreign competition that has ensued since, government mandates, and tough economic times.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I must say, BMW has as strong a product- and technology lineup as they've had in recent memory, but watching some of their recent TV ads, I've had the urge to groan and cringe. I believe BMWUSA needs to fire its ad company and/or marketing executive.
      • 3 Years Ago
      BMW has completely lost their way. They are obsessed with SUVs and iPhone apps, and not about driving.

      I'm a long time BMW fan, owner and CCA member and I have absolutely zero interest in new BMWs, their target market now-adays, or faith in their ability to make a car that isn't completely overburdened with complicated electronics and parts that fail repeatedly. I have countless friend and acquaintances with 135s and 335s that are constantly failing and the dealers can't figure out why.
      • 3 Years Ago
      They used to make fun to drive cars but now are trying to make cars appealing to mainstream buyers.
      • 3 Years Ago
      BMW's poor reputation for reliability and durability has kept me away from the brand. Address that and I'll buy one.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Unique marketing focus? Not at BMW. It appears that BMW, Mercedes Benz and VW/Audi work from the same play book. In general it objective is to minimize available models, force most options into inviolate packages and penalize anyone bold enough to request a manual transmission. On the last note MB offers manuals in the C300 and SLK300, BMW offers manuals in the 1,3 and 5 series but in most cases offers automatics for free which translates into a $2000 loss at trade in for those that order a stick, Audi treats manual lovers well as long as they don't want a convertible or a TT and finally VW is fairly transmission agnostic but in comparison with other markets has the most constipated product offering.

      They all are truly posers in the US trying to posture themselves as exclusive brands despite what the truth is in Europe where most cars are the base spec with a small diesel. Base spec often means no HID, sunroof or leather. For the many who get a car as part of their compensation base spec is their lot in life. The consequence of these facts is while Europeans and Americans share the body shell the typical driving experience is quite difference. Accordingly brand perceptions are quite different. MB is truly a soup to nuts manufacturer responsible for the Smart as well as largest trucks with everything in between leaving an impression similarly as GM's was in its heyday.

      In return to the original question "Is BMW to Soft" the answer is yes and is has been for a long time. It has forgotten it's roots as it sought to be a country club icon. The danger in this approach is that the club members not only are impressed by a badge but by reliability and effusive dealer service. In this realm competitors can quickly catch up if not take the lead. Long term the German makes are in trouble as long as they remain the high cost provider.

      Please note Porsche is not part of this group. The fact that is sells more 4 doors than 2 doors means little at the present. Porsche continues to offer bespoke motorcars throughout is lineup. The advent of the diesel Cayenne was matched with the introduction of the GT2 RS while Porsche's profits skyrocket.
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