Exponential Acceleration

Just how resilient is a strong brand? BMW are in the process of finding out. 

Photo (c) instagram.com/autodidaktblog

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.


The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at 


Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs www.auto-didakt.com // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

13 thoughts on “Exponential Acceleration”

  1. The elephant in the room is Vorsprung Dürch Technik.
    Not as shouty, nor as bullyingly driven.

    1. Not so sure about that!

      Many a badly driven Audi in the UK, at least.

    2. I concur with James. Audi seems to attract numerous sorts of bad elements in the UK.

      BMW is not immune from this either, but the aggressive oafish element is more likely to be driving an A-Klasse or S3, as evidenced by the number seen on their sides in the roadside ditches of my county.

  2. The development you descibe absolutely correctly is not new.
    It’s just the sh*t finally hitting the fan at BMW.
    It all started with E65 and a subsequent permanent stress test for the BMW brand with the rest of the model range.
    BMW invested a lot of money and successfully tried very hard to get their whole model range into the top ten list of the ‘Europe’s ugliest car’ and now they are just reaping the fruit of their effort.
    There’s no need to feel sorry for them, they get what they were striving for. It’s only the workers who in the end will pay dearly for the idiocies of their managers.

    1. And yet there efforts haven’t let to the demise of the company, quite the contrary in fact. Production output has gone up over the years, so has revenue, so has operating income, so has net income, so have total assets, so have the number of employees. If I want to know whether a brand is desirable or not and if their design strategy is successful or not, I would look at the hard numbers first, instead of personal rants, which are by definition nothing more but anecdotes.

    2. Well, Freerk, BMW have just announced that Harald Krüger’s contract won’t be renewed, a.k.a. he’s ‘pursuing new challenges’.

      Numbers never tell the whole story.

    3. Thou shalt not dare to bear criticism against thy one and only BMW because if thou doeth he cometh after thee. Only he who believeth in BMW without condition fulfilleth the law.

    4. Mr de Ruiter apparently hasn’t been reading the business papers recently. BMW’s share price and net profit are down significantly. They have just issued a profit warning. A lot of it has to do with their large SAVs made exclusively in the USA which are facing huge import duties into China because of you-know-who. Still, the big Mercedes SUVs are made in the US and face the same problem, but Mercedes isn’t croaking the way BMW is.

      Yesterday, to compensate for their wounded status and to rally the troops, BMW introduced the new X6 G(iganto) T(ub) o’Lard, which broke cover here to almost universal derision. It truly is a tubby car, a rotund albeit squared-off here and there ground pounder, all 2300 kg of it.. The new BMW CEO has some work to do.

  3. A successful brand is not what a company claims it to be, but what its customers believe it to be.

    I am a former BMW owner and potential customer for the new 3 series Touring. Before it was released, I had a good conception in my mind of what it should look like and feel like – this is ‘brand’.

    Reports suggest that the 3 is a good car to drive (depending on spec) but the design is mediocre and disappointing. It has made me less likely to consider one, not more.

    And as for some of the company’s other output – particularly the X cars – I am speechless.

  4. If the FAZ is to be believed, Oliver Zipse is in line for the crown.

    A disappointment – as I was backing Klaus Fröhlich.

    I have no knowledge of the two executives’ comparative abilities, I just liked the idea of BMW being headed by “Mr. Cheerful”.

  5. In the past I liked BMW’s. Who can forget the 80’s legends – the 635csi, M5 and 325i sport.
    I owned two M3’s between 2008 and 2013 and both needed new engines at 40,000 miles and dealing with BMW approved was a total nightmare.
    Recently I have developed a real dislike for the cars and this brand.
    I think they are totally dull looking just like Audi and they are making Mercedes Benz life so easy. Mercedes Benz have realised that people still like good looking cars whilst BMW think you can put a badge on anything and it will sell.

  6. Perhaps the insecurities with the brand’s Design and substance were responsible for BMW’s latest “Vision M Next” concept. An (successful) attempt to grab the world’s attention while trying to rely in well-stabilshed formulas from the first mid-engined cars, but ending up with a car that doesn’t look very good, or doesn’t live up to it.

  7. For the object lesson on luxury vehicle brand self-destruction, Cadillac is, of course, the “Standard of the World”.

    I think styling was a secondary issue. Cadillac’s prime problems in their 1980s decline was powertrain reliability and durability.

    The other huge problem was the change to downsized, fuel efficient, front wheel drive models that Cadillac buyers DID NOT WANT !

    GM believed their “experts” who assured them that future oil prices would skyrocket. The downsized Cadillacs were actually introduced in the mid-1980s when oil prices were under ten dollars per barrel.

    Brilliant !

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