Untether the Ewes and Sing Your Song, Euan.

The only way forwards is back, according to an old dictum. BMW thinks so too.

More premium, uglier. Image: autoblog

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

This is premium. Not many sold.  1971 BMW E-20 525

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.

2017 BMW 5-series concept sketch with too many lines, not “precise”: pinterest

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.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

39 thoughts on “Untether the Ewes and Sing Your Song, Euan.”

  1. I remember Eberhard von Kuenheim telling a journalist that BMW was in the lucky position of not having to sell a BMW to everbody who wanted one.

    1. Dave: good quote. That’s how it was until maybe 2000. If BMW has to sell as many cars as its “mainstream” competitors then presumably production volumes demand volume production methods. BMW has cannily left MINI to mop up smaller cars sales and really only sub-B and B class cars remain off limits for BMW.

  2. “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.”

    This is unequivocally a sign of a company that believes its own PR bollocks, and worse, is in the habit of confusing it with good ideas. See further: contemporary BMW design output.

    1. To write the name out in full
      means BMW reckon nobody or nearly nobody knows what it means. Is that true of the “up-market” customers for their future “upmarket” cars?

    2. The last time BMW used their full name was for the US racing campaign in the Seventies with the E9 CSL to tell American customers BMW did not mean British Motor Works…

  3. The more you supply of something, the less value it has i.e. it becomes a commodity. Who’d have thought?

  4. BMW is quite clearly being run by marketing idiots. They already possess the most valuable car brand in the world which they have been diluting due to those deadly sins of greed and megalomania. Car brands get to be upmarket due to a depth of engineering and attention to detail that foster admiration and loyalty from customers over decades. As Richard points out, many mass market manufacturers have attempted to move upmarket by using marketing spiel and fancy grilles to no avail. Only companies from the far east now have the culture that allows long term reputation building. One can see already in the USA where snobbery about European brands is less entrenched that Lexus is successful while Genesis and even Kia are quickly catching up. Too many BMW owners have been stung by excessive repair costs recently. Even if they are second owners, that will harm residuals and the mighty will fall.

  5. Please allow me a shameless bit of self-promotion, for it its pretty much on-topic: http://bit.ly/IAA2017review1 and http://www.auto-didakt.com/random_blog_leser/iaa-2017-frankfurt-motor-show-brand-pavilion-stall-booth-design-review.html

    The German premium brands have started to realise that size comes at a cost. The current sub-brand craze (see Mercedes-Maybach, Mercedes-AMG, (Mercedes-)EQ, BMW M, BMW M Performance, BMW i, BMW i Performance) is both a symptom and an attempt at a solution. This will not end well.

  6. Richard,

    are you aware that your musings were appropriated by journalists reporting from the IAA in real time?

    The BAYRISCHE MOTORENWERKE monochrome logo will not be used on the cars, by the way.

    1. Yes. The cars themselves remain unchanged. No ‘Black Label’ propeller.

  7. Surely a (rather late) response to Audi (and others) biting chunks out of what had been “their” market.

    As the badge on a 20-year-old 3 series has often lost its colour, making it mono from new might have amusing effects. Changing the name looks v parochial: I don’t think US buyers like furrin much, unless you’re Ferrari, so maybe this battle is to be fought first in Germany itself.

    I remember when the 3.0S was accompanied by the 2500, which was just as comfy, in that slightly firm style that continues in most of their models, but otherwise obviously less “premium”. Then came the 3 series, which probably causes the subsequent problems: it can never be truly premium; that’s not what it’s for.

    Will they go full Meybach? MB do sell some in the US — and India too.

  8. Wow, lots of criticism of BMW here. Please allow me to join in.

    I am not sure the design team are competent enough to deal with the challenges currently facing the company. And – as stated above – the marketing and corporate PR seems to be taking a lead from the designers.

    Three letter acronyms are, generally, to be avoided. This is because very few people will recognise them or not confuse them with something else. Yet, if you can establish a TLA in the public consciousness, you have a truly valuable thing – a shorthand for your brand and true market presence.

    In Britain we have two famous ones – the NHS and the BBC – and both are still held in great affection by the public. In the automotive world, you have BMW… not everyone could tell you what those letters stand for, but they know they stand for something. And now they want to get rid of them?

    The tragedy is that the ‘i’ cars – i3 and i8 – both showed a bright future for BMW design and BMW as a brand. That is now being lost.

    1. Everything is not lost (yet), Jacomo.

      The most recent reorganisation of BMW’s styling department gives some reason for hope. While some of the departures (Anders Warming leaving Mini for Borgward) are unquestionably BMW’s loss, others aren’t necessarily. I’m certainly looking forward to whatever Jozef Kaban brings to brand BMW’s table. His track record at Skoda is among the more inspiring of any major brand’s current chief designers, whereas I personally was never a big champion of his predecessor at BMW, Karim Habib.

      As Kaban only started to work at Petuelring this month, we’ll have to wait a little before we get any idea of what he has in mind regarding the Bavarians. But I for one am eagerly anticipating what he comes up with, eventually.

  9. I’m disappointed by Richard Bremner – he used to be able to be relied upon to call a spade a spade, or at least marketing BS as marketing BS; maybe it is editorial influence. It’s funny is it not how enthusiastic amateurs such as ourselves have spotted and predicted this dilution of brand kudos when it seems the professional experts in BMW (they are not alone) have not. Models like those two 2-Series MPVs (BMW entering the market just as it goes into terminal shrinkage), the 5 GT/ new 6-series, 3 GT and X4 and X6 have been largely (although not entirely) called out as being a stretch too far. If anything, I think BMW has not used MINI enough in the lower echelons of the market – I mean it has already abused the ‘brand’ so why not take it beyond the limit (a bit like FIAT with those grotesque 500 MPV things that sell bafflingly well, especially in southern Europe)?

    1. Bremner was a different chap at Car. However, BMW has a big weekly spend at Autocropley so I suspect Haymarket only licks the hand that feeds it. €10,000 from BMW in cash could make me write more about ashtrays… just saying.

    2. Still, presumably BMW wants at least the appearance of an independent press? What good is a good review if it is not seen to be unbiased? TTAC makes a big deal of this and it does them well. The same went for Car back in the day. I suppose these days all those exclamation marks have to be paid for.

  10. The Bremner piece is interesting as it chronicles a car company that not only appears to be floundering in the face of rapid change across the entire industry, but one which has no real answer to the relentless onslaught from the Daimler juggernaut.

    Two things stand out for me. The assertions of BMW’s product management and brand chief Hildegard Wortmann, who talks the most vapid nonsense. How about this: “I think it’s important when you have such a strong brand that you keep it fresh all the time, that you keep it original, that you keep it on the edge,” So tell me Hildegard, how do we do that? Why, drones of course. My God, she’s a genius. I suppose she has to earn her retainer somehow, but you know your business is in trouble when you hear this kind of guff.

    I imagine it goes something like this… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQgQxycJ0sw

    Not being funny or anything, but I think it’s important when you have such a strong brand that you treat it with the greatest of care and that you do not on pain of death, cheapen, devalue it or fiddle with its essence. But what do I know?

    The second outstanding comment came from the man with the fringe and the interesting line in neckscarves, BMW Chief Creative Officer, Adrian van Hooydonk, who told Bremner, “Pretty quickly, we came to the conclusion that it [design] should be something that is cleaner, where we are trying to achieve a lot with fewer elements, and fewer lines. When you reduce the form language, the details matter more. In the luxury segment, where often more is more, we are offering luxury in a very modern way.”

    This sounds not a million miles removed from what the Sindelfingen magician has been spouting of late and with the Blessed One scoffing everyone’s lunch (and boy doesn’t it show) it suggests that the suits at the Petuelring are embarking on a crash course in Sensual Purity.

    No, I don’t envy Josef Kaban one little bit…

    1. Yes, but you get used to it quickly. ‘More of less but better’ should be BMW’s new motto…

  11. Grilles, names, and logo? That’s a sure sign they are paying their marketing consultants way too much. It’s like they all believe their crap is worth more than content or product. Grilles, names, and logo? And not a word about actual product?

    1. Yes! Grilles, names and logos. Not engines or technology. You’ve summed it up very succinctly indeed. Essentially, they are treating the product (mobility) like a perfume: a nice smell in a bottle suggestive of something vague but nice.

    2. For their transition from motorcycle engined bubble cars to highly respected sports saloons BMW needed the vision of one single man, ‚Nischen-Paule‘ Paul G. Hahnemann.
      To ruin their brand values they need hordes of consultants.
      Like their German competitors BMW takes their styling inspiration from their biggest Export market. They simply deliver what their customers want.

    3. Dave: I am curious as to how much truth there is to that notion, that Chinese taste is determining the look of such cars. If it does it’s probably in a negative way as in from all the acceptable proposals it’s the ones they don’t like that are rejected. However, it might be true that after a while designs likely to be unacceptable to Asian tastes are not even offered in the first place.

    4. „If it does it’s probably in a negative way as in from all the acceptable proposals it’s the ones they don’t like that are rejected.”
      That’s what someone asked me when we first saw the Banglified Seven: If that’s the one they liked just imagine the look of the ones they rejected.

      A couple of years ago some Mercedes bigwig explained that a car’s light units were seen as its eyes and therefore customers expected to see some facial traits familiar to them in a car’s lights. He therefore announced that European customers would have to get used to Mercedes’ with lights forming a ‘V’ because that resembled the average Asian face, as Asia was their biggest market and therefore they’d have to comply to Asian taste and expectations.

      The funny thing is that while the German big three make their cars ever uglier with oversize grilles and silly folds and creases Asian manufacturers like Kia give their products a distinctly European look (small wonder when they hire Peter Schreyer to do exactly this).

    5. Richard: I’d guess the influence of Chinese taste on a car’s looks starts even earlier.
      When they draw a new car they already start with an oversize grille and lights forming a ‘V’ because that’s what sells in the Chinese market. When the basic shape is done, they add an overdose of decoration for the same reason.
      That’s why we get cars looking like a mixture of a Russian oligarch’s wedding decoration and a Chinese new year dragon.
      But if Audi is selling more cars in China than in the rest of world combined, who are we to complain? We should be thankful for getting any cars at all…

    6. Richard: At least the Bangle BMWs served a good purpose.
      Ferdinand Piech once said that if BMW didn’t produce the Bangle cars the Porsche Cayenne and Panamera would have the dubiuos merit of being the ugliest cars on the road.

    7. SV: the revised Bangle 7 got it right; the first take had odd lights up front. After that car they are all too similar from generation to generation.
      Time for re-appraisal?

  12. Looking at those pictures in the linked Autocar article I’ve just realised what the design inspiration is for this new breed of BMWs. It’s the giant clam.

    1. Not to be outdone by the Sindelfingen slugger, BMW have coined their own vacuous design strapline. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ‘Precision and Poetry’. You’ll be hearing a lot more of it, so best get used to it.

      Thanks Hildegard. Much obliged.

    2. Hildegard Hamm-Brücher came up with that line? How very odd.

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