Tag Archives: IAA

Why BMW should look at Volvo to shape its future

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 13.20.29The furore over the looks of the BMW X7 concept car revealed at the Frankfurt motor show this month, which triggered criticism of the company’s entire presence at the show, was not, at its heart, about design or product.

The X7 betrays a BMW brand which has gradually been losing its sense of purpose. And now it appears to be forgetting what its values are, just when it needs to evolve them into a relevant proposition for a market undergoing massive change. There’s a cultural confusion infecting how it develops products which need to resonate with a changing marketplace yet still articulate the brand. This, then, is a brand issue.

tvh8tjgkxqplakwxhr28The current trajectory can be traced back to the early 2000s when BMW commoditised itself by selling the 3-Series heavily into the world of discounted business fleets and aggressively targeting the less brand-conscious private customer with cheap leasing deals. The 3-Series became the new Ford Mondeo. Its appeal was a prestigious badge but the trigger was affordability. The badge began to stand for driveway bragging rights, not engineering, and the ubiquity made it, well, common. And meantime BMW was becoming more a bank that sells cars than a car company. This was a big cultural shift.

More recently the company has, like its rivals, thrown itself onto the altar of the SUV. The problem for BMW was that it had no brand heritage in four-wheel drive vehicles. It bought Land Rover, absorbed the technical knowledge and promptly sold it off. But technical know-how is not the same as brand equity or fit; Mercedes-Benz and Audi, on the other hand, had history in proper off-roaders and performance-oriented 4WD systems respectively.

BMW merged its new-found 4WD knowledge with the chassis engineering for which it is rightly renowned to create the X5, the first SUV you could corner like a conventional car. An impressive engineering achievement, but one which summed up the coming confusion: the brand whose strapline was ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ was engaging its engineers in trying to make a car with a high ride-height, high centre of gravity and excessive weight from the 4WD system do things which a conventional car would do much more easily. The 4WD would probably never be used off-road and was not there to improve handling dynamics. It was work of inherent engineering compromise. And it compromised the brand.

BMW_X4_xDrive35d_M-Sportpaket_(F26)_–_Frontansicht,_11._April_2015,_DüsseldorfPorsche did the same with the Cayenne of course, but Porsche needed saving; BMW didn’t. Every third car made today by BMW is an SUV, and the production X7 will book-end the line-up with an X2 model to be launched in early 2018, both additions to the range. With the lust for SUV volumes came a dip in quality. And the compulsion to proliferate, to find niches nobody has asked for, led to cars like the dumpy and universally disliked 5-Series GT and, more recently, the X4 – a visibly confused creation which is neither fish nor fowl. Or perhaps it’s both.

BMW then brilliantly took the initiative on the first of the big new challenges facing the car industry – low carbon. It stole the electric vehicle high ground when it launched the i3 and i8, making EVs desirable and cool overnight. Yet one is an urban-centric EV solution, the other a £100k sports car halo product, with nothing in between and no longer-term narrative. And that was four years ago. Only in the past couple of weeks has it indicated its next move, in the form of the iVision concept, expected to go into production as the i5 – but not until 2021. Mercedes, Audi and VW have all articulated more coherent strategies and have already started to occupy the premium EV territory.

And now, of course, the low-carbon imperative has been joined in the list of key challenges by automation and the sharing economy. Automation squarely challenges BMW’s indelible mantra of ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ – how is this sustained when cars not only drive us, but when integrated mobility dictates that commoditised pods shuttle us around our cities in bland efficiency. Does BMW become merely the hardware provider? And car sharing is, by definition, a cultural shift where not only ownership but brand allegiance are secondary to the ideology, service and efficiencies on offer.

These challenges are the same for all carmakers of course. But they’re greater when your fundamental brand tenet has been about the pleasure of taking the wheel.

bmw_joyThis is why BMW shifted its emphasis away from ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ to ‘Joy’ a few years ago. Joy was still the core theme in a presentation given this summer at the Automotive News Congress in by BMW’s brand boss Hildegaard Wortmann. But it means nothing. It’s feel-good lifestyle marketing-speak which could be applied equally to SEAT. It’s not a principle or a solution.

The vision of the brand she gave was strapline-centric – one where it’s hoped that customers will somehow absorb generic messaging and convert it subliminally into something meaningful, rather than one where the business’s culture, products and services define the brand, and where straplines are a consequence of demonstrable values and real assets.

There was little substance on how BMW would achieve relevance among an audience which does not want to own or lease a single car, and the impression given was that the company feels a need to outsource its brand articulation to Millenial-derived content generated by social media campaigns.

For BMW or any major carmaker to truly flourish in the new automotive market, they need clarity of vision and the courage to use their brand values as the foundations for addressing changing market needs.

volvo-xc40-care-by-volvo-13BMW doesn’t appear to be doing so. To see how to use existing brand values to reinvent a brand for the age of EVs, automation and sharing, it need only look at Volvo. If safety, practicality and family-friendliness can become cool, what can the can The Ultimate Driving Machine become?

There are no easy answers but BMW, surely, can find them. Meantime they can be confident about that Joy isn’t one of them.

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Frankfurt reflection #4: transformational Tesla needs transforming

The most important new car at the Frankfurt show. BMW i3? No. Jaguar X-C17? No. Porsche 918 Spyder? No.

The most important car was the Tesla Model S. This is a car from a company most people have never heard of, which has done what none of the major carmakers has managed. It is an all-electric vehicle without serious range issues, which competes on performance and price with hybrid offerings from Porsche, BMW, Audi and Mercedes.

However, pleasing though it looks, its styling is more stretched Mazda than premium, differentiated, cutting-edge, game-changing automotive landmark. It’s not just too conventional. The grille has a large, shiny-black-plastic element which looks cheap. And the interior materials are not good enough. One look at the BMW i3, costing close to a third of the price, tells you how a car like this should be executed.

Frankfurt - TeslaThese things can be forgiven and overcome. But the way the car was presented at Frankfurt was a brand crime. The stand was a bare, sorry affair surrounded by hall clutter and no attempt to communicate the significance of the car or the Tesla experience. The display was as underwhelming as the car’s technical prowess is astonishing. This from a company run by Elon Musk, PayPal billionaire and space pioneer as well as automotive trailblazer.

As battery technology improves, Tesla will be able to develop smaller, cheaper, battery-only electric vehicles which could take on the big players in the segments of the market which matter for volumes. But only if it realises it has a brand engineering job to do too.

Frankfurt reflection #3: Toyota – market leaders playing catch-up

The Frankfurt show was the moment when electric vehicles not only moved into the mainstream of the displays, but when they became the stars. Everyone had some kind of EV to show, and it was clear that the technology can be used equally well for economy and performance. BMW covered both angles by using the i3 as shuttles displaying and its production i8 big brother, which has been conceived around the performance and handling advantages of electric motors. A big slam dunk for the Germans.

Frankfurt - YarisAll of which was bad news for Toyota. Its Prius pioneered hybrids, which most people agree present the immediate way forward for EV technology, but it does not enjoy the recognition it deserves. The stats are remarkable: 5.5m Toyota and Lexus hybrids sold to date, resulting in savings of 37m tonnes of CO2 and 13bn litres of fuel. It’s now selling 1m hybrids a year and will launch 15 new hybrid models by 2015, so the stats will accelerate.

So Toyota owns this territory, yet it’s playing PR catch-up with companies whose EVs have only recently begun to surface – not just BMW but VW, Mercedes, Renault and others. I was in PR at Toyota in the 1990s and was constantly frustrated at the lack of recognition in Japan of valuable brand messages, how easy it was to uncover PR nuggets yet how difficult it was to use them.

In Frankfurt Toyota showed a high-performance hybrid concept of its Yaris supermini and gave its entire stand over to hybrids. The next few years belong to Toyota, but it will need to give its PR and marketing people as much credibility as its engineers if it is to take the high ground it’s already scaled in technical terms.

Frankfurt reflection #2: no escaping Mercedes

Frankfurt - MB confFrankfurt is a show of strength for the German motor industry: the local car companies have their own halls, each of which would accommodate an entire regional motor show.

For the last couple of events BMW has had a driving circuit in its hall, snaking around above the floor displays. Audi had one at the last Frankfurt event too, so this time it went for an upside-down night-time metropolis hanging from the ceiling. Why? No idea. But as VW Group’s premium volume brand, which has overtaken both BMW and Mercedes, it gets its own hall, separate from VW’s other seven car brands, and has to do something different.

But it’s still Mercedes which dominates. In the domed Festhalle building, opened by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1909, it creates an extravagant world over three floors which is impossible to ignore and equally difficult to escape. Its press conference, allocated 45 minutes – longer than any other – attracts most of the 10,000 attending media. Almost no-one can see anything but, more important, once in you can’t leave.

Take the escalators and you’re on the top level and can descend only floor-by-floor, looping past endless displays like a nightmare vision of an automotive supermarket. But when there are 10,000-plus people standing, waiting for a press conference, unwilling to move an inch, you’re stuck. No chance of going down the stairs, and one lift for staff only.

I’m not sure what German Health and Safety’s like, but if there had been a fire or a security alert you may as well have reclined a seat in one of the new S-Classes, turned on the back massager and hoped for the best.

Frankfurt reflection #1: i3 makes an impact

Frankfurt i3The BMW i3s shuttling journalists around the vast Frankfurt IAA showground last week may have given us a glimpse of the future in more ways than one.

With its road network, surrounding office blocks and on-site railway station and hotels, the Frankfurt Messe site perfectly created a vision of the megacity which BMW has been planting in our minds as the habitat for electric vehicles. And the i3 was in its element, moving four adults around in style and surprising comfort, with zero tailpipe emissions, swiftly – excitingly even, with huge and immediate torque on tap – and silently.

And that’s the thing. So silent were they, with almost no noise from the skinny tyres, that it was almost impossible not to step in front of one. I nearly did. The drivers learned to play it very safe, assuming that pedestrians would not notice the car and giving them a 5-metre berth. One admitted to having hit someone on the first day.

It demonstrated how much we depend on our hearing in such situations, and makes you wonder if some sort of pedestrian avoidance system will become necessary. Or perhaps a horn with a V8 soundtrack.

Frankfurt shows the way forward

Frankfurt - MBUnlike the Geneva motor show, Frankfurt isn’t an annual event – it alternates with Paris. But it’s the big one. A vast, sprawling mini-metropolis of a show, a temple to the German auto industry which powers the European market.

But the 2013 event came at a time of severe market decline. Five years of sliding volumes, sales down 6.7% in the first half of the year, and the mighty German market falling by over 8%. Meanwhile Spain’s decline is such that the Big Five has become a Big Four of just Germany, the UK, France and Italy. The region’s manufacturing base needs major surgery, with VW Group boss Martin Winterkorn saying in Frankfurt that 10 factories should be closed to relieve the industry’s chronic overcapacity, and none of his counterparts is under any illusion that weak lending and high unemployment mean recovery will be anything other than slow and long.

Yet Frankfurt 2013 was the most positive for years. OEMs like Nissan which didn’t attend two years ago were back. There was no single stand-out high-volume model launch – partly because these days there are so many niches – but you couldn’t move for new product. Concept cars were strewn like confetti. Cutting-edge technology oozed out of the products. The feeling was that the market has hit the bottom and there’s only one way to go from here, so let’s design and engineer our way out of this.

Renault, the company which has fallen hardest in the downturn, had no less than five concepts. You have to hand it to them – after the massive commitment to launching five battery-only EVs at the worst possible time it’s going on another product offensive. But a statement by the company that it’s aiming to get 60% of its business outside Europe is telling: it’s pinning hopes on emerging markets and the continuing growth of the Dacia budget brand.

Nevertheless, the strategy is in sharp contrast with Fiat Group, which is failing to invest in new product, and also, when you look closely, Volkswagen. VW Group has very nearly 25% of the European market – helped by the decline of Renault, PSA and Opel but with the VW brand alone now accounting for a larger share than other OEM group. Yet apart from the Golf and Up! its huge Frankfurt stand was filled with ageing product.

What was new was the showing of its first electric production vehicles, the e-Up! and e-Golf. Always one to enter new segments when the market has already been primed and with well-proven offerings, VW has come late to the party but with impact, talking of up to 40 electric or hybrid variants, 14 of which will arrive by next year.

Frankfurt marked the moment when EVs began to move seamlessly into the mainstream of the displays, with almost every manufacturer showing versions of existing models with electric powertrains of various sorts. EVs were part of Frankfurt - i3 shuttlesthe show’s fabric as soon as you entered the gates, BMW providing a fleet of i3s to shuttle press around the showground, a high-impact demonstration of the car doing what it does best – moving four adults around a confined, busy road space in swish, stylish silence, and here giving a glimpse of the megacity. Mercedes and Kia also provided hybrid shuttles but everyone wanted to ride in the i3, which says a lot about the fascination it holds. Elsewhere the production version of Tesla’s Model S, a car as remarkable the i3, was displayed on a stand as underwhelming as its technical prowess is astonishing. This is a landmark car presented and styled like a Mazda.

Porsche showed how it should be done with the $1.05m 918 Spyder and a Porsche Design recharging point but, back in the real world, Volvo displayed the world’s first diesel PHEV (plug-in hybrid) engine. Range Rover launched and began taking orders for diesel hybrid versions of both the Sport and flagship Vogue models, Mercedes had a PHEV version of the brand new S Class, and BMW revealed a prototype PHEV system in its new X5. The trend for hybrid technologies to be used for performance as well as efficiency and performance is very much on its way.

Toyota even showed a high-performance hybrid concept of its Yaris supermini, developing 420PS. But its core message was giving its entire stand over to hybrids as it rather belatedly tries to establish perceived ownership of hybrid technology leadership. Since it launched the first Prius it’s quietly – too quietly – sold 5.5m hybrids, resulting in savings of 37m tonnes of CO2 and 13bn litres of fuel. It’s now selling 1m hybrids a year and will launch 15 new hybrid models by 2015, so the stats will accelerate. The next three years should belong to Toyota.

The growth of the B-segment crossover is one of the key current trends in Europe, and it Frankfurt - GLAwas moved onto a new level in Frankfurt by the introduction of the Mercedes GLA. Audi has inevitably already entered the segment with its something-for-everyone product strategy, and BMW has extended its X range down to a 1-Series model, but the Mercedes, with less of a scaled-down SUV shape, could be the most popular of all. This could conquest sales from the mainstream offerings of Peugeot, Renault and Opel, and to make their lives more difficult Lexus previewed its own crossover with a leftfield Darth-Vader-like concept. But the car which stole the Mercedes show at its massive hall was a concept S-Class coupe set to replace the CL next year. Even stripped of some of the chrome and detailing, the production version will be a must-have in Florida, LA, the Middle-East, Moscow and Shanghai.

BMW’s hall was demure by comparison. The production i8 electric supercar was there, albeit rather shyly presented, which is no bad thing. BMW likes to manage – and exceed – expectation, and no doubt it will with the i8. It’s no 918 Spyder, but then it will cost a mere $150,000, and in its own way it’s just as clever, with super-lightweight carbon and aluminium architecture, a futuristic body form, 100 mpg and the performance of an M3. Talking of which, the M3’s replacement, the M4 coupe, also debuted at Frankfurt.

BMW’s big rival Audi, for all its sales success, seems to be running into a designer’s equivalent of writer’s block. It trumpeted the Quattro concept, an homage to the original, groundbreaking Quattro of 30 years ago. Yet this looked very similar to – and not as well resolved as – a concept shown 2010. Its other Frankfurt concept, the Nanuk, was a total surprise and yet familiar. Anyone who was in Geneva earlier this year would have seen this, less some Audi detailing and minor styling changes, on the Italdesign Giugiaro stand as the Parcour concept. As an off-road supercar it’s interesting, but it should have been designed as an Audi from the start.

Where Audi has been hugely successful in recent years is in introducing premium products in lower market segments. Like Renault with its Initiale sub-brand, Ford is now attempting to go in the opposite direction by providing a premium experience for its mainstream models using the Vignale banner. The company showed a restyled Mondeo, a conventional product in the declining D segment, which under the Vignale name will give customers a dedicated dealer contact and concierge services. It’s a tough goal and Ford may well be better off letting the product do the talking– the S Max concept in Frankfurt is a compelling design and clearly close to production.

Frankfurt - C-X17But perhaps the most significant show theme was platforms and specifically scalable and flexible architecture. In addition to the Renault-Nissan architecture showcased in the new Nissan X-Trail, PSA’s low-cost, low-weight platform underpins the vital new Peugeot 308 launched at Frankfurt. But the importance of platform strategy is underlined by being absolutely vital to the fortunes of two smaller companies – Jaguar Land Rover and Volvo.  Volvo’s star was the Concept Coupe, sitting on the next XC90’s platform, which has been designed to accommodate Volvo’s new family of four-cylinder-only engines and hybrid drivetrains announced in Frankfurt. Jaguar’s C-X17 concept, built on a new aluminium architecture, is a remarkably successful styling interpretation of the brand in an SUV form. It’s clearly intended for production, and Jaguar will be expecting a Cayenne-like uplift when it launches. But more importantly the same unerpinnings will give rise to a compact model family to compete with the BMW 3-Series off in 2015, transforming volumes and potentially changing the motor industry order: the C-X17 is not merely an SUV and the first iteration of a new architecture, but a disruptor, a catalyst to the change within Jaguar necessary for growth.

This may have been the most significant Frankfurt show for decades.

Motor shows stay static

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The Festival of Speed is something people look forward to for the whole year. A social event, a celebration, a place where the famous are there as themselves, where the cars are the celebrities and are driven rather than merely displayed. An occasion. Frankfurt is the ultimate conventional motor show, a giant corporate trade show which lets the public in to wear out their shoes trudging between air conditioned halls full of static cars. A giant exhibition of national corporate muscle.

In Frankfurt the German companies have whole halls to themselves. No surprise when you look at the vast portfolio of the VW group. The Paris show is similarly focused on its own. It’s no coincidence that by far the best European show is Geneva, which takes place in a country with no car industry of its own. It’s also small enough to walk around in a couple of hours, as opposed to two days for Frankfurt. But the compactness has a more important effect, meaning that no manufacturer gets too much space, and small carmakers and styling houses sit right next to the big boys.

But Geneva, like all motor shows, is still an anachronism. Despite the incredible pace of vehicle development, motor shows are a contradiction: things which move, transform our lives and stir the soul, parked up regimentally in stuffy halls on the outskirts of cities. Even electronic vehicles, which the industry urgently needs to make appealing, are presented in the same way – static, ironically. There is little to excite or involve the customer. In the age of experiential marketing and digital communication, the motor show as we know it is an endangered species unless radical changes are made to its format.

If the ability of the industry to reinvent itself and the design and R&D brains within the car companies could be applied to the production of motor shows, the experience could surely be transformed into something spectacular. An occasion rather than a corporate event.

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