It's hard to believe, but after all these years there are still a great many consumers, specifically luxury-car buyers, who associate BMW with the yuppie phenomenon of the 1980s. That's what BMW Vice-President of Marketing Jack Pitney was distressed to find when he took over the brand last year after a successful run managing MINI USA. BMW's research shows that despite record sales in the U.S. last year, a shocking 75% of luxury buyers aren't even considering a Bimmer.
The problem, say BMW brass, is that for too long it has perhaps overemphasized the brand as the paragon of performance driving. BMW, indelibly etched in performance-car enthusiasts' psyches as "The Ultimate Driving Machine" in ads for 33 years, is showing a different plume of feathers in a new ad campaign, the first from its new U.S. ad agency GSD&M of Austin, Tex. Rather than horsepower and curve-hugging handling, it's ballyhooing its design prowess and financial independence.
In one ad, for example, it asserts that BMW's designers and engineers answer only to BMW, while cheekily reminding readers that Volvo and Jaguar are owned by Ford (F), that Audi is but a unit of Volkswagen (the People's Car), and that its nemesis, Mercedes-Benz, is all merged up with -- gasp! -- Chrysler.
COOL BUT INHUMAN? In another ad, it brazenly spotlights the rear end of its 7 Series flagship sedan, the very design element that was lampooned by journalists in 2001 when the car debuted. But since then, Toyota (TM) and even Mercedes have copied the so-called bustle-like "Bangle Butt," named for BMW chief designer Chris Bangle. The headline: "Not taking risks is risky." With pitches like these, the Bavarian carmaker hopes to curry favor with the "creative class" in America that, the theory goes, values independent thinking and design and the kind of risk taking that watered-down, conglomerated companies can't afford.
Pitney says the brand's problem, if it has one, isn't showing up in sales yet, but that the challenge is obvious. "We're entering new product segments all the time, and we can't afford to not be on the shopping lists of this many people," he says. About the new direction of the campaign, Pitney says the company isn't initiating a makeover. But there are dimensions of BMW's brand story that clearly need to be communicated better, he says. "People think we have a cool persona as a brand, but say we lack humanity," says Pitney. Call the campaign preventive maintenance, then, because BMW's 266,000 in sales last year was an all-time record.
The targeting of the creative class is an idea inspired by Richard Florida, a Carnegie-Mellon University professor who has written three books on this "class" of people, who include scientists, engineers, architects, educators, writers, artists, and entertainers. Their economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. Members of this group, which is about 38 million strong, share common characteristics, such as being driven in work and family by creativity, individuality, diversity, and merit.
THE NEED TO BE LIKED. "More than anything, they live by the power of ideas, and admire companies and people who champion creativity and ideas," says GSD&M president Roy Spence. Ironically, according to a ranking of U.S. cities by Florida, who consulted on the new BMW campaign, Austin is the No. 1 market for the creative class.
The tone in some of the ads reminds me of the dynamic played out in the hit British TV series The Office, in which the office manager is depicted comically as a man obsessed with being loved and not rocking the corporate boat. Corporations, say image and marketing consultants, are driven more these days than in past years by the desire to be liked by customers as well as employees.
"There's an influential class of consumers, maybe it's the creative class, who make buying decisions based in part on how they feel toward a company and what it stands for," says Dennis Keene, an independent consultant who advises companies on marketing strategy. BMW, says Keene, has come a long way since the 1980s, "and has good stories to tell that could legitimately change some perceptions."
IDEAS ON A PEDESTAL. Unusual for BMW, several print and TV ads show and discuss BMW's Leipzig, Germany, plant, which was designed by world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid. The factory is a design statement that includes a workspace for white-collar employees, whose desks sit below an almost silent assembly line carrying BMW bodies to another assembly line for completion. "A parent company would never let us build this," reads the ad.
Some TV spots depict stereotypical corporate-cog executives who squelch creativity and initiative. "Beware of the compromisers. They say things like, 'Choose your battles,' or 'Is this idea really worth falling on your sword for?' " Later, the recurring message throughout the campaign comes in, "At BMW, ideas are everything."
In another TV spot, a wrecking ball slams into Frank Lloyd Wright's "Falling Water" house, and a Jackson Pollock painting sits in the dumpster, contrasting BMW to companies that don't value maverick artists and designers.
It's easy to take a strategy like this and execute it badly. I point you to the current stilted Ford Motor ad campaign that dryly and without any wit trumpets Ford as a company driven by innovation. Running a bunch of TV and print ads telling people that you're innovative just doesn't sound very, well, innovative.
GREEN MACHINE. What I like about this BMW campaign is that the messaging is, in fact, creative and well designed. BMW has long been a company of innovators and creative designers. But it's a side of the business that has never been touted in its communication in any meaningful way. The Internet media buy for the new effort includes automotive-enthusiast and news Web sites BMW has frequented before, but the new BMW ads are also hitting sites like www.theonion.com, www.Gawker.com, www.joshspear.com, www.gothamist.com, www.weblogs.com, and www.flavorpill.net -- sites where the company feels it can reach the creative-class cognoscenti.
I also like a couple of ads that speak to BMW's environmental practices, which in today's business culture is closely aligned with innovation and creativity. The headline in one ad reads, "According to our engineers, tailpipe water can be quite delicious." This ad points to the 745h, a version of BMW's flagship 7-Series sedan that runs on liquid hydrogen and puts out zero emissions, just water from the tailpipe. The car, the ad, says, is ready to be produced right now. "We're just waiting on the world to catch up," in terms of having stations that supply liquid hydrogen. Another ad spotlights the fact that more than 50% of the energy used at its South Carolina plant is derived from methane piped from a landfill nine miles away.
This campaign will run through the summer, and will preface launches of the BMW 3-Series coupe and the redesign of the X5 SUV. The carmaker is entering new segments, too. In another two years or so, the 1 Series now on sale in Europe is expected to be in the U.S., and the company has acknowledged it's working on a vehicle that's neither SUV nor minivan but encompasses attributes of both with very flexible storage and seating options. As the company stretches what the BMW brand stands for, it's right to try and bring more of its natural target audience under the tent.
GETTING OUT THE VOTE. GSD&M is one of the better ad agencies in the country. It has done work for Land Rover, but is better known for ads created for Southwest Airlines (LUV), Wal-Mart (WMT), Krispy Kreme (KKD), and the AARP. Agency founder and President Spence has also advised Bill Clinton, and now Hillary Clinton, on political marketing strategy.
In the end, consumers decide which brands they bring into their lives, especially big-ticket items like luxury cars, in similar fashion to the way they vote. Perhaps we should call this campaign "The Kinder, Gentler BMW."