BMW is studying ways to meet the fast-changing demands of its customers in China to better serve the world's largest auto market and to determine whether trends there -- such as teledining and a heavy reliance on voice messaging -- will expand globally.
"Young Chinese consumers have very different behaviors from Europeans and we are here to learn and to find a way to properly fulfill their expectations," said Alexis Trolin, head of the BMW Group ConnectedDrive Lab in Shanghai.
Meeting those needs is crucial to BMW, which is counting on strong demand in China to offset weak sales in Europe. In the first three months of the year, BMW sales in China rose 7% to 80,570 units. To maintain momentum in China, BMW is counting on people such as Mr. Trolin, a 43-year-old Stockholm native who helped open the China unit of ConnectedDrive in 2011.
Mr. Trolin said that teledining has become popular with people who don't want to lose time traveling to megacities to eat with friends. Teledining allows one group eating at a restaurant in one city to connect with friends in a different city via teleconferencing. Young people in China also prefer to leave voice messages rather than texting or e-mailing.
"A voice message is more lively than a text and can be listened to at the recipient's convenience, while a call could come at an inappropriate moment," said Mr. Trolin, who joined BMW in 1997 after serving as a submarine navigation officer in the Swedish navy.
After two years in China, Mr. Trolin said he is accustomed to using his phone mainly to send and receive voice messages.
He declined to say what BMW will do to tap into these trends, but history shows that the automaker is willing to cater to Chinese tastes. For instance, BMW offers long-wheelbase versions in China of several models.
"Chinese customers also look for long-wheelbase versions of mid-sized and compact sedans not because they are chauffeur driven but to offer more legroom to their friends and family members as a sign of high respect," said Gerhard Steinie, director of the Shanghai studio of BMW Group's DesignWorks subsidiary.
To understand why convertibles are rare in China one only needs to look at Chinese house gardens, he added. These gardens are always in the center courtyard of the building, making them difficult or impossible to see from the outside.
"In a convertible, you are too exposed," Steinie said.
One of BMW's biggest challenges is getting its in-car systems to work properly despite the fast-changing road network of China's megacities, the growing number of cars on the road and the high percentage of young, inexperienced drivers.
For instance, Carsten Isert, head of the 6-month-old BMW Group Technology office in Shanghai, is trying to adapt the automaker's speed limit sign recognition system to Chinese roads, where speed limits can vary depending on the lane.
"When a navigation or active safety system is able to adapt to signaling and driving behaviors of China," Isert said, "it will be flawless all around the world."
--Automotive News China--