Just how resilient is a strong brand? BMW are in the process of finding out.
Supposed elitism is one of the car industry’s preferred counter-arguments/excuses. When challenging a particular product, particularly with regards to its design, one is quickly dismissed as a snob, out of touch with what ‘the market’ really wants by those who conceived that product. Any criticism is therefore at best a matter of ‘personal taste’ or, at worst, highly patronising.
The strength of a brand is one of the car industry’s preferred arguments. If the brand is strong, a company should be able tosell almost anything to its customers. Back in the late 1990s, Mercedes-Benz put this to the test with a string of offensively poor products that, despite toppling over and rusting at an alarming rate, sold well. Indeed one might wonder if any brand other than Mercedes-Benz, inventors of the automobile and hitherto purveyor of the most thoroughly engineered specimen of the kind, could ever have gotten away with this. Yet the patronising spirit, the belief that an excellent track record entails carte blanche, prevails.
The BMW brand (inducing BMW i, BMW M and, lest we forget, Bayerische Motoren Werke) is almost as strong as that of Mercedes-Benz today. And yet the proverbial cracks in the armour of the marque that taught every car owner on this planet that what they truly desire is an Ultimate Driving Machine (hence making every other brand trying to become BMW too) are starting to show. At an alarming rate.
First of all, there’s the design issue. On these pages, criticism of the looks of recent BMW models is nothing new. That the once highly respected designers working at the FIZ have recently turned into the industry’s laughing stock (what with photos of the new 1 series having caused amusement, rather than astonishment among a fair few designers working for competing marques) should be more of a worry to those in charge at Munich Milbertshofen than Driven to Write’s take though. Not to mention the countless internet memes and a rather astounding viral video – it’s not just snooty critics and dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts who take notice anymore. It’s the ‘net.
Design has traditionally been a good indicator of a car brand’s leadership, so it doesn’t come as a complete surprise that at the same time as competitors giggle at the 1 series’ creases and the internet at The X7‘s grille, BMW CEO, Harald Krüger has to fight off rumours that he’s about to get ousted, to be replaced by current head of production, Oliver Zipse.
On top of this hearsay, there are concrete announcements about more than one of the niche models that have fuelled the product onslaught of the past years not getting replacements – among them brand killers like the 2 series Active Tourer, as well as oddballs like the ‘GT’ fastback saloons. These decisions, while obviously perfectly agreeable to overdue by themselves, do make the previous brand expansion effort, which entailed considerable dilution of the same, appear rather pointless, to say the least. The damage is done, after all.
Needless to say, old habits die hard, so ‘the market’ in general and ‘China’ in particular will serve as explanations for poor design and inappropriate products for many more motor shows to come – whether the BMW CEO’s name is Krüger or Zipse. But the writing’s on the wall: Any brand’s strength can erode if something is eating away at its substance.
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