Mini: reinventing a brand icon

From the sharing economy to startup accelerators, Mini is ‘growing up’.

There must be something special about a brand if it can pass between six different owners in half a century and still be described rightfully as ‘iconic’. In the case of car brand Mini, that special attribute is its ability to reinvent itself.

Last month, in a graffiti-daubed former factory in central Berlin, executives from Mini’s owner BMW gathered to announce “the third chapter” in its 56-year history. Marketing Week received exclusive access to hear the story behind the brand’s latest reboot, including new designs, a new logo and a new positioning for its cars.

Since the German manufacturer relaunched the quintessentially British car brand in 2001, sales have gone from strength to strength, rising 12-fold to reach more than 302,000 units last year. Yet Peter Schwarzenbauer, the BMW board director with responsibility for the car brand, declares that despite this success, Mini will have to embark on a new direction if it is to continue to thrive.

“Things are going extremely well for Mini, so why is it is reinventing itself now? To explain this we have to look at a comparison between 2001 and 2015. Society has changed dramatically – consumption is less of a priority [now] and people are questioning more and more the purpose of everything and the benefits [of products], for ourselves and for society,” he explains. “People are more focused on ‘the essential’ and I believe that no other car brand is better positioned than Mini to meet this new focus on things that count.”

New grown-up attitude

In other words, Mini is growing up. The brand unveiled a new stripped-back version of its corporate identity at the event, which also saw the launch of the new Clubman model. The pared-down 2D black-and-white logo, which replaces the 3D ‘badge’, reflects a broader shift in Mini’s brand communications that aims to address practical concerns about its products and its wider role in society.

Upon separating Mini from the defunct Rover Group in 2000, BMW revamped the car’s engineering and appearance in order to turn what had been a utilitarian economy car into a stylish premium marque. The car’s relaunch, combined with a self-confident, tongue-in-cheek approach to advertising, which stressed its difference in the marketplace, was hugely effective at a time when the developed world’s economy – and the confidence of its consumers – was booming.

“The zeitgeist in 2001 was that we had just entered a new millennium and people were jumping into that with a lot of energy,” remembers Schwarzenbauer. “People were very willing to question conventions and the new Mini really hit right at the heart of that.”

Mini plans to create separate identities for its five “superhero” models including colour schemes and aesthetic concepts

Fast-forward to the present day, and the effects of rapid technological change, geo-political uncertainty and the financial crash of 2008 have combined to fundamentally alter consumer behaviours. The brand is targeting the same audience that it did in 2001 – namely, affluent urban dwellers in their 20s and 30s who enjoy the fun, freedom and individuality that Mini offers – but the outlook of this audience has shifted considerably.

“We have more digitalisation, so all of a sudden people can get more information about everything and are keen to know what’s behind the brand and the shiny surface,” says Marc Lengning, head of brand management at Mini.

“They want to know where products come from and about the whole supply chain. The second thing is people want to have a dialogue with a brand and are asking for authenticity from that. These are the big differences compared to the past that have led to these [brand] changes.”

Pared-back advertising

The new brand identity will debut in advertising for the Clubman when the model goes on sale in October. A preview of print and outdoor ads shown at the launch event reveals a more sparse, sombre presentation in comparison to recent Mini campaigns, such as ‘Not Normal’ in 2013. The Clubman is simply photographed against a hardwood floor in an old industrial building as light streams in from a glass roof, with minimal copy underneath.

The familiar black background used in ads over the past 14 years has gone and instead Mini will focus on creating a separate identity for each of what it calls its five “superhero” models, including colour schemes and aesthetic concepts tailored to each car.

This will provide the somewhat unusual spectacle of a piecemeal brand relaunch that reveals itself over time as each of the five models receives their new identity – a conscious decision by Mini as it looks to make consumers more aware of its different product lines.

Despite the strength of its brand, Mini is a relatively small company in sales terms. Schwarzenbauer announced last month that Mini is having its best ever year, selling more than 160,000 units in the first half of 2015, yet this performance pales in comparison to some of the world’s biggest car brands. Last year, Mini vehicle sales accounted for 14.3% of BMW Group’s total volume.

The decision to bring Mini’s different models to the fore is intended to broaden its appeal and bolster its current growth trajectory. At present, the flagship Mini model, the Hatch, accounts for 69% of all Mini sales in the UK, while the all-terrain Countryman accounts for about 15%. By giving each of its five models their own platform, Mini hopes to achieve greater diversity in its sales mix and encourage consumers to reconsider the brand.

The new Clubman, for example, is Mini’s largest ever car, measuring 4.3 metres in length. With about 100 litres more boot space than its predecessor, the car aims to attract more families to the brand and marks Mini’s first move from the small car market into the compact segment occupied by the likes of the Ford Fiesta. The Clubman’s focus on functionality and elegant design is reflected in the simple, cerebral imagery of the upcoming ad campaign.

Lengning insists that despite this downbeat approach, Mini has not lost its gregarious, edgy character. This is due to reappear in some of the advertising for its other models as it rolls out in the coming years, he says. For example, the John Cooper Works – Mini’s sporty performance vehicle that accounts for around 5% of sales – would appear to lend itself to a more ebullient tone of advertising.

“With our five ‘superheroes’ we want to make it very clear that each of those cars has its own character,” explains Lengning. “The Clubman is the most extreme example in terms of moving in a direction away from the past, but you should still expect a lot of fun from the different models as each character emerges.”

Car-sharing service

Alongside this new brand strategy, Mini is diversifying its approach to customer engagement by embracing the emerging ‘sharing economy’. At the Clubman launch in Berlin, the company announced that from now on it will automatically offer new customers the option to enter their car into BMW Group’s car sharing service DriveNow.

The option enables Mini owners to make money from their vehicles when they are not using them by authorising registered DriveNow users to access and drive their cars. People can locate cars in their vicinity via the mobile DriveNow app and Mini owners can use the platform and respond to requests on their connected car dashboards.

DriveNow, which launched in 2011, operates in eight cities around the world at present using a specially branded fleet of BMWs and Minis. The decision to allow Mini owners to offer their own cars for sharing represents a significant escalation of the scheme and there are plans to launch DriveNow in around 20 further cities within the next three years.

While undoubtedly a bold move, there is a danger it could backfire in the long term. By encouraging more people to get involved in car sharing, Mini may simultaneously contribute to a culture in which people are dissuaded from purchasing their own car.

However, Lengning says the strategy is indicative of Mini’s new resolve to move with the times. The rapid growth of brands like Airbnb and Uber has destabilised many legacy businesses, but rather than row against the tide, Mini is seeking to compete on its own terms by encouraging more people to experience its brand.

“In all sectors, digitalisation changes things and you have two choices: you just ignore it, which in my opinion is not a good idea, or you start playing with it and really shape the future. That’s what we’re doing,” says Lengning.

The Mini heritage

In the rush to embrace digital change, Mini is also keen to avoid losing touch with its rich British heritage. The original Mini, created in 1959 by car designer Sir Alec Issigonis for the British Motor Corporation, was a no-frills small car dedicated to making optimum use of space. The first version to go on sale even did so without in-car heating on standard models; customers had to request the installation of a heating unit if they wanted one.

Although focused on functionality from the outset, Mini quickly developed a reputation for style and excitement following a partnership with racing car maker John Cooper, who in the early 1960s developed performance models branded with his surname. Mini’s popularity soared as iconic celebrities, such as British model Twiggy and American actor Steve McQueen, were photographed driving the car, while in 1969 Minis played a prominent role in the Michael Caine film The Italian Job.

The brand moved between a series of British owners (see timelines, above), ending up at Rover Group prior to its acquisition by BMW. Today, most Minis are still made in the UK at a factory in Cowley, Oxfordshire and new models incorporate multiple design elements that speak to the car’s earliest iterations. For example, the new Clubman features horizontal double-doors on the boot in the same fashion as the 1970s version of the model.

BMW’s Schwarzenbauer says that in addition to this design legacy, Mini’s brand principles are still guided by the minimising, practical instincts of Issigonis on the one hand, and the maximising, performance-driven approach of Cooper on the other. “The ethos is ‘maximise the experience – focus on the essential’,” he explains.

“Mini has always been about new ideas, inspiration and a lot of passion, and these things are not going to change.”

Though it is reinventing itself again, retaining its links to the past will be crucial for Mini as it develops its new brand identity in the years ahead. Among other announcements made last month was a pledge by the brand to begin investing in startup accelerators around the world that aim to develop solutions for “urban living”. Yet as Mini expands its services and its role within society, it must also hang onto the qualities that have made it iconic for so long.

“Mini crosses cultures, class, gender and age,” says Mini’s head of design Anders Warming. “Anyone who buys a Mini feels immediately younger while driving it – it just puts a smile on your face. People keep coming back to Mini because it has real substance.”

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