Hazard warnings for fast-lane BMW marque

There are plenty in the motor industry who think Jim ODonnell, BMW UK chief these past eight years, is moving on at just the right time. When a brand is at the top of its game, there is only one way to go.

There are plenty in the motor industry who think Jim O’Donnell, BMW UK chief these past eight years, is moving on at just the right time. When a brand is at the top of its game, there is only one way to go.

And, by any reasonable criterion, BMW is at the top of its game. UK sales have virtually doubled from 67,676 in 2000 to 121,575 last year. Not only that, O’Donnell has overseen an unparalleled expansion of the model range. When he took over, there were five models: the 3 Series, the 5 Series, the 7 Series, the Z3 sports car and the nascent 4×4 X Series (X5).

These have now been supplemented by a revitalised Mini, the debutant 1 Series, the X3 (junior to the X5) and a completely new 6 Series (which has been dormant for 15 years). In addition, all existing models have been relaunched. That’s an awful lot of activity. Most would agree (with some reservations about the 1 Series and the X3) that BMW has demonstrated masterly segmentation skills which have left few chinks in the brand panoply for the competition to exploit.

Nor has O’Donnell neglected the more boring, but no less vital, aspects of car marketing. Dealerships are a flawed but critical element in assuring brand loyalty and therefore future sales. BMW has achieved a consistency in its dealerships which is the envy of the rest of the industry (not excluding the premium end).

Its problems lie elsewhere. As a premium marque, is it becoming a victim of its own success? Are there simply too many Beemers on our roads these days? And, if so, what is Bracknell going to do about retaining their exclusive image?

BMW’s fundamental strength as a brand is the quality of its engineering. Jaguar, Alfa Romeo or Lancia might once, under different historical circumstances, have challenged it as the ultimate sports saloon marque. But today, its only hot challenger is Audi, which sports similar precision-engineered Germanic qualities.

BMW aficionados take comfort from the fact that rear-wheel drive vehicles (such as BMW), when properly engineered, will always outperform front-wheel drive vehicles (such as Audi, and Alfa Romeo). But BMW cannot afford to be complacent about this. Audi handling, instanced in the latest TT and the R8, is getting a lot better. What’s more, Audi cars now look a lot better. Subtle aesthetic appeal should not be underestimated in the premium market: the macho brutalism of Chris Bangle’s BMW “design language” has attracted plenty of criticism.

A second, more generic, issue is the hardening regulatory
environment. Driving fast (whatever Jeremy Clarkson may choose to believe) is going out of fashion. It’s deemed increasingly “anti-social” and is certainly increasingly expensive to indulge in, whether we’re talking about EU emissions legislation, excise tax, fuel tax, speed cameras or the C-charge.

One of BMW’s responses to this challenge is the proposed launch of a smaller “green” brand for urban environments. This is dangerous terrain. For, as one major automotive expert points out, if BMW launches a green brand, what does that say about the rest of its portfolio?

Stuart Smith, Editor

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