Opinion: Is BMW becoming too soft?

"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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