BMW Broadens Marketing Message

'Ultimate Driving Machine' Joined by 'Company of Ideas'

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CORRECTION: The original version of this column incorrectly said that BMW was dropping its long-time "Ultimate Driving Machine" slogan. In fact, while the company is broadening its message with an additional theme, it has not dropped its old slogan. -- Editor

Back in 1974, BMW sold 15,007 automobiles in the American market, which made the brand the 11th largest-selling European vehicle. Here are U.S. sales of the top ten that year:

  1. Volkswagen 334,515
  2. Capri 75,260
  3. Fiat 72,029
  4. Opel 59,279
  5. Volvo 53,043
  6. Audi 50,432
  7. Mercedes-Benz 38,170
  8. MG 25,015
  9. Porsche 21,022
  10. Triumph 18,396
'BMW is retooling its marketing messaging. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
'BMW is retooling its marketing messaging. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
The following year, BMW's new agency, Ammirati Puris AvRutick, launched an advertising campaign that would make both the agency and the brand famous: "The ultimate driving machine."

31 years
It's been 31 years since the launch of the ultimate driving machine. So how is BMW doing? Not bad.

Last year BMW was the largest-selling European brand in the American market. Here are U.S. sales of the top ten.

  1. BMW 266,200
  2. Mercedes-Benz 224,269
  3. Volkswagen 224,195
  4. Volvo 123,587
  5. Audi 83,066
  6. Land Rover 46,175
  7. Mini 40,820
  8. Saab 38,343
  9. Porsche 31,933
  10. Jaguar 30,424
Owning a word
One of the most important conceptual ideas in marketing is "owning a word in the mind." In almost every market, in almost every category, the leading brands are brands that can be identified by a single word or concept. BMW owns "driving." Mercedes-Benz owns "prestige." Volvo owns "safety."

Three of the top four European automobile brands own a word in the mind, but what about the No. 3 brand, Volkswagen?

Volkwagen is a fading star. Among today's European market leaders, it's the only brand that has actually lost sales in the U.S. market in the past two decades. Ironically, it's a brand that got to be the leader by owning a powerful concept in the mind. "Small, ugly, reliable."

After its remarkable marketing victory, what do you suppose BMW is going to do next? It's the Curse of the New Generation. According to an article in the July 10, 2006 issue of Automotive News: "BMW's longtime tag line –- the 'Ultimate Driving Machine' –- is not driving sales to a lot of potential buyers. So BMW's new 'Company of Ideas' ad theme touts corporate independence, safety, fuel economy and all the features that the brand isn't used to selling, says Howard Mosher, executive vice president of operations at BMW of North America LLC."

A company of ideas? Sounds more like General Electric than BMW. According to Automotive News, one of the first print ads in the campaign delivers the message "Safety isn't just ABS and DSC but also DNA." In other words, forget about performance, let's go after safety.

Not dropping long-time slogan
BMW says it isn't changing its long-time advertising slogan, "The ultimate driving machine." But the issue isn't really what the slogan or theme or strategy or positioning is all about, the issue is what the advertising should be talking about. And it isn't "corporate independence, safety, fuel economy." BMW has no credentials in those areas. BMW should be talking about the "fun of driving," the concept that made the brand successful in the first place.

Meanwhile, over at Volvo, they are playing around with the opposite idea. Forget about safety, let's go after performance.

It always happens. The grass is greener on the other side of the freeway. Maybe so, but it's not as easy to make a U-turn in the mind as it is a U-turn on the highway.

Any successful brand got to be successful by standing for something in the mind. Changing what you stand for is almost impossible unless you don't stand for anything at all. In other words, a brand that is nowhere in the mind is a brand that can be changed. A brand that stands for something in the mind is a brand that is forever locked into its position.

Cemetery of failed products
In the cemetery of failed launches are thousands of products, like Xerox computers, IBM copiers, Tanqueray vodka, Listerine toothpaste and Coca-Cola clothes. These products didn't fail in the marketplace, they failed in the mind. They tried to stand for something that didn't fit prospects' perceptions about the brands.

Mind first, market second. You can't short-circuit the process by taking a good product to market to demonstrate its superior performance and then, in the process, changing perceptions in the mind.

Take Pepsi-Cola, for example. What comes to mind when you think of Pepsi? Back in 1963, the brand launched an advertising program that has to be the "ultimate" cola campaign.

"The Pepsi Generation." This idea took advantage of a key psychological principle. The younger generation looks for ways to rebel against the older generation. Since the older generation was drinking Coca-Cola, it was easy to convince the younger generation that they should be drinking Pepsi.

Back to winning slogan
How long did the Pepsi Generation slogan last? Just four years. For the next 16 years, Pepsi experimented with a number of different slogans ranging from "Taste that beats the olders cold. Pepsi pours it on" to "Pepsi Now!" Finally, in 1984, it went right back to what made the brand a strong No. 2 to Coca-Cola. "Pepsi. The choice of a new generation."

Nothing is as vulnerable as a powerful advertising slogan. Year after year, creative hot shots take a crack at it, figuring that if they can topple the king, their reputations are made for life.

One of the reasons given by BMW's new executive VP for its new approach is the fact that a recent research study revealed that only 25 percent of its target market would consider buying a BMW. I think that's pretty good.

Can't appeal to everybody
After all, you have to expect that some prospects would prefer an ultimate comfort machine, an ultimate economy machine, an ultimate capacity machine or an ultimate prestige machine. Even an ultimate Japanese machine or an ultimate American machine. No brand can appeal to everybody.

In his book, Adcult USA, James Twitchell tells a story about Rosser Reeves. An executive of Minute Maid once complained about Reeves's refusal to fiddle with the advertising, saying "You have 47 people working on my brand, and you haven't changed the campaign in 12 years. What are they doing?"

Reeves replied: "They're keeping your people from changing your ad."

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Al Ries is the author or co-author of 11 books on marketing, including his latest, The Origin of Brands. He and his daughter Laura run the Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries. Their website is
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