February 17, 2010
It’s official: The poseurs and in-house cynics are out to destroy BMW from within.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 2/16, 3:00PM) Detroit. I’ve written about the crucial importance of managing a car company’s image in this column countless times. Crafting an image is – beyond making the actual products great, of course – the most difficult and harrowing endeavor a company can pursue. It is fraught with peril, progress can come in extremely minute bursts, setbacks can be devastating – witness Toyota’s current travails - and to get it right takes years and years of focused, unflinching consistency that starts with top management and runs rampant throughout the rest of the organization.
And it’s never easy, because every piece of corporate communication, every PR event, every bit of advertising, every executive interview, every quote to the press and every marketing initiative plays a role in creating that image.
Today we’re witnessing GM’s struggle as it tries to redefine an image that has been left in tatters by its swoon into bankruptcy, and of course after years of mediocrity and the accumulated bad consumer memories associated with it. GM desperately wants everyone to look at where they are now with their products and where they’re going, while many consumers are still reluctant to even give them the time of day. It’s a huge mountain to climb.
Chrysler is in even worse shape. Disengaged from the public conversation for too long now, Chrysler is frantically trying to get back on consumer radar screens with its current product lineup, while its new Fiat-enhanced offerings are still many months away. The brain trust at Chrysler is finding the going excruciatingly slow – if not just plain excruciating – and it will take years, not months, but years of grinding away to get out from under the cloud hanging over the company.
And while GM and Chrysler flail about, Ford keeps its blinders on and just keeps upping the ante with more excellent products, a clearly focused plan and a leadership that’s second to none. (And a leadership that is all too painfully aware that it could go south in a heartbeat if they veer off message or get off track, I might add.)
But today it’s about BMW.
For years BMW was the car company to emulate. With focused products that perfectly mirrored its etched-in-stone persona as the “Ultimate Driving Machine,” BMW was the envy of all other car companies - and from every angle too - product, marketing and image. Oh, BMW did have its missteps along the way, to be sure, but generally it strictly adhered to its carefully orchestrated persona as the most sought after and desirable German luxury-performance make.
Until the last few years, that is.
Concurrent with BMW’s perilous adventure while embracing designer Chris Bangle’s whims, the company embarked on a path of being more “approachable.” In doing so, BMW mimicked the wrong-headed Mercedes-Benz foray into becoming the dreaded “all things to all people” car company, and both companies took turns steering off the road and into the ditch with a series of product missteps and quality miscues while chasing volume that eroded their heretofore solid reputations.
For BMW it was the shockingly lame sports car that took the company a decade to get right (and some would argue that the current Z4 still isn’t what it should be). But that was the least of their transgressions, because they also unleashed a series of bloated SUVs - each more overwrought and overweight than the previous one – while expanding their product lineup into territories that rendered them all but unrecognizable as BMW. And other than the 3 Series - which they steadfastly refused to screw up - BMW continued down the path that was taking them away from their core strengths, resulting in such motorized atrocities as the 5GT and X6 crossovers.
It’s obvious that there is a massive internal struggle going on within BMW. On one side are the True Believers, the people who want BMW to get back to its roots building nimble, lightweight sedans with verve, personality, performance, efficiency and character. And on the other are the poseurs - the in-house cynics who believe that the blue-and-white propeller emblem can sell pretty much anything - and to them worrying about such quaint notions as the company’s roots is a recipe for disaster, because too much easy profit will be missed pursuing such folly.
Which brings me to the new BMW television campaign called “Joy,” which shows any number of Shiny Happy people enjoying their various BMWs in all kinds of sunny, enjoyable ways. The abridged copy unfolds like this…
We are a car company, but we just don’t make cars
We make time machines…and create works of art
We realized a long time ago that what you make people feel is just as important as what you make.
And at BMW we just don’t make cars, we make joy…
Perfectly fine on the surface, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the word “joy,” right? How could a genuine expression of happiness be bad? Especially when it’s brought to you by such a fine automobile?
Look below the surface, however, and we find that this commercial is trying to appease both internal camps. This is BMW straddling the fence, while trying to curry favor with the True Believers – who couldn’t possibly quibble with the idea of the “joy” of driving that BMW brings to the table, could they? – and the in-house cynics who want to see loads of shiny happy people driving many different BMWs, a cross section of which are now calculatedly designed for the more mundane vagaries of everyday life.
Besides the fact that this is BMW we’re talking about here, the problem with the “Joy” campaign isn’t the use of the word itself - no, it’s the fact that this commercial could have been done by any other brand. It could be a Kia spot. Or Hyundai. Or Volvo. Or Chevrolet. Or even Honda.
With this spot BMW is going all shiny-happy on us and abdicating its throne. You don’t just walk away from one of the most memorable and accurately descriptive advertising themes in automotive history “for a while” as BMW says, and expect to blissfully escape any lasting repercussions or long-term effects.
It just doesn’t work that way.
Ask Mercedes-Benz. They walked away from “Engineered like no other car in the World” - literally and spiritually - years and years ago, and they’ve been desperate to reclaim its power and imagery ever since. And short of adopting that theme again and living up to it in every respect, guess what? They’ll never get it back.
BMW insists this is just an expansion of their brand positioning to accommodate what people already know, that BMWs are a “joy” to drive.
I vehemently disagree. It’s not brand positioning, it’s bland positioning.
By selling something acceptably agreeable for all, it’s all but guaranteed that BMW will fail to elicit passion from anyone.
Which makes it official: The poseurs and in-house cynics are out to destroy BMW from within.
And with this new “Joy” campaign, they’re off to an excellent head start.
That’s all I got for this week.
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" hosted by Autoline Detroit's John McElroy, with Peter De Lorenzo and friends this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
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