Right, where were we?
I’ve just spent the weekend in Berlin with two close friends and am heading back to the Netherlands on what seems to be continental Europe’s slowest train. Apart from returning home absolutely knackered and a few pennies lighter, after a visit to some car museums, I’ve been inspired to write a post about branding in the car industry and specifically, BMW.
Ever since the late 70′s, BMW has produced high performance versions of its standard road models. They have been referred to as M Cars as they grew out of the BMW motorsport division. The M Cars tend to have an exponentially better performance than the standard models that they are based on. For example the M5 has a 6.3L V8 engine outputting 560BHP that delivers a top speed of 190mph and a 0-100kmh of 4.4 seconds. When compared to the entry level 5 Series, the 520d, the performance is light years apart: the 520 has a 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder diesel engine with a power output that is a third of its distant cousin the M5. This is also reflected in the 0-100 performance of the 520d at 7.6 secs. If you’re a car buff, you’ll know that 3.2 seconds on that parameter is an absolute ice age. And that doesn’t even consider the handling difference (brakes, steering, etc…) between the two cars. I know what you’re thinking, I’ve chosen the weakest of the 5-series to compare it to, but I’ve done that for a reason, which I’ll get back to. Add into the mix that all M-models are tested and tuned at BMW’s private facility at the iconic Nürburgring, and you can appreciate that you’re getting a clearly better car. In fact, the skin and skeleton of the cars are all that the 520 and the M5 share in common with each other. This is naturally reflected in the price. In Ireland, the entry level 520d will set you back €50,000, whereas an entry level M5 is almost 3 times that at €135,000. All in, the M-Sport range of cars represents a super luxury extension of an already premium brand.
How BMW visually distinguishes these cars from one another is the primarily through the use of the distinctive M-Sport badge on the exterior and on the interior of the car. There are some other minor visual touches which only the eagle eyed would spot, namely air vents between the front wheel arch and doors and usually a twin set of double exhausts. However, I think it would be fair to say that the primary visual device used is the M-Sport badge. And here’s my big issue with BMW: namely their usage of this branding device. As you’ve seen from the comparison of the product attributes and their relative pricing, comparing the M5 to the 520d is like comparing Economy Class on an airline with First Class both in pricing and experience. The only thing thing in common is that they are both on an aircraft, otherwise they’re aeons apart.
So you’d think BMW would be keen to protect the equity in the M-Sport badge that it has taken decades to build? In fact, quite the opposite is true: for years they have offered M-Sport packages on all their standard models. So you could order that 520d I mentioned earlier directly from BMW, get the 520d sign taken off it and replaced with an M-Sport badge and have other M-Sport insignia placed all over the car. Giving the general impression that the car you have to all intents and purposes an M5. Yes, you will not be getting M-Sport level performance and you won’t have the vents and exhausts. But to the lay eye on the street, you will be driving an M5. So whilst you might be getting none of the functional benefits of the M Sport brand, you are certainly being given free access to a certain amount of the emotional benefits. I find this quite staggering. BMW have spent years building and investing in the M-Sport proposition, but now they are allowing people access to this at a fraction of the cost. I would nearly go so far as to say that what they are engaged in is tantamount to counterfeiting of their own product.
A lot of the times things like this in marketing are subjective and mostly great branding is completely a matter of one’s point of view. Bearing that in mind, for me what BMW are engaged in is counter to a lot of what I hold fundamental to branding. The symbiotic and critical link between a brand’s functional and emotional benefits on one side of the equation and pricing on the other side for me forms the heart of any great brand. A great example of the flip of the BMW situation is that urban legend about LVMH destroying any Louis Vuitton stock left over at the end of each season. Either the consumer pays the prices that LVMH set or they don’t get access to the Louis Vuitton experience. Destroying your own production is an extreme measure and, from what I can tell via Google, it doesn’t necessarily to be true. But it’s a nice anecdote in any case! BMW, however, are at completely the opposite end of the scale. In allowing consumers access to the what-should-be holy grail of the M-Sport badge for a third of the price, BMW haven’t expanded the product proposition, in my humble marketeer’s view they’ve undermined it.