The only way forwards is back, according to an old dictum. BMW thinks so too.
In a recent article at Autocropley, Richard Bremner presented without criticism BMW’s plans to “go upmarket”. Firstly, one has to say, aren’t they already supposed to be upmarket?
Well, the answer is no apparently. As we showed here, BMW’s price spectrum has dropped somewhat in the last twenty years. The price of the cheapest cars fell well into territory that was long the preserve of the hum-drum, mass-market brands as BMW traded on its name. Further, the price of its most expensive cars fell too. Altogether this means that as BMW has managed to
outsell Ford and Opel with its now ubiquitous 3-series it is now in the position of needing to remind people that it is indeed an upmarket brand. This ought be be as unnecessary as Rolls-Royce telling us it wants to be seen as “premium”. Among the means that BMW wishes to use to signal its cachet is the use of the full version of the company’s name: Bayerische Motoren Werke. Allied to this will be the use of a different version of the logo, in sober monochrome instead of the usual white and blue roundel.
The strategy is a sure sign that selling more cars than ever is having a cost in terms of the brand’s perceptions. Trying to position oneself as “more upmarket” and trying to push the price range upwards are the tricks that other manufacturers have been attempting for decades: consider how many times a new Ford or similar brand have told us with the launch of a new model that the car is “more premium” than before.
Not content with this, BMW is also playing with the form of the traditional and well-established kidney grille format; “…the grilles of all three concepts [at Frankfurt 2017] vary substantially in shape, texture, proportion and form”. This kind of within-brand variation is what one might harmlessly expect of Suzuki and Peugeot. Not BMW for whom the kidney-grille ought to be a hallmark of stability and mean instant recognition. In short, the hallowed design is being devalued in the name of easy impact.
Adrian Van Hoydoonk explained it this way: “First, expanding at the top end of our range is something that we’ve been wanting to do for a while. We believe that there’s room to do so – actually our customers are asking for more products at the top end – and almost at the same time as we were plotting new cars like the 8 Series and the X7, we realised that when we came to 2018, we would hit a wave of new products, including the Z4 and a couple of other cars. In fact, six or seven new BMWs will be rolled out in the next year-and-a-half or so. I’ve been with this company a while and we’ve done a lot of product in the past, but I would say that we’ve never done so many new cars for one particular brand in such a short period of time.”
One reason developing a lot of new cars is hazardous is that it will mean less soak time to consider the quality of the designs. Duffers will get through (see the title image, for example). For a firm like Toyota this is not a problem as a mix of hits and sort-of misses seldom (never) affects that firm’s general perception as a maker of solid, commodity cars. So, even as BMW tries to strengthen its prestige credentials (built on stability and steadiness) it is aping the roll ’em out approach of what were once known as volume makers. BMW was once seen as a specialist. Not any more, it seems.
Autocar writes: “With such a rich array of new models under development, the company reckoned that this was ““an opportunity, because if you can roll six cars in one-and-a-half years, you can pretty much transform the brand,”” says van Hooydonk.”
All this spells out the plain fact that BMW is pretty much the Ford and Opel for our times: variable grille designs, a poshed-up logo to replace the tired blue-white one, and the use of a spelled out name to add – somehow – prestige to what has, in truth, become a rather ordinary marque. It doesn’t stop there because the busy shapes of the recent cars is also a burden.
So, BMW is also trying to get back to simplicity and, laughably, what they describe as styling lines which are “sharper and more precise”. I have already dwelled on this before and still don’t know what this might actually mean in geometric terms. There is an upper limit on how razor sharp feature lines can be: they ought not to be able to cut fruit and “precision” is simply untranslatable: are the designs not already put together properly because that is what precision implies.
On all fronts, design, symbolism and perception, BMW has watered down and devalued its brand and this attempt to win it back is, in all likelihood incompatible with selling a hell of a lot of cars.