BMW's marketing chief on the brand’s coronavirus response, its polarizing logo change and its plans for Netflix
Nine months ago, Uwe Dreher left BMW’s Munich headquarters for New Jersey, where the 17-year veteran of the luxury automaker began overseeing U.S. marketing. The early returns are positive. Under his leadership, BMW last year beat German rival Mercedes-Benz to take the luxury sales crown in the U.S. with sales up 4 percent to 324,826 vehicles, according to Automotive News.
But with the coronavirus pandemic grinding the U.S. economy to a halt, BMW is seeking to maintain its momentum in a newly uncertain sales environment. The automaker has already canceled two experiential marketing events slated for March and April in Ohio and Washington, D.C., dubbed “Ultimate Driving Experience.” BMW has also delayed an ad campaign for its 8 Series vehicle from early April "until at least May," according to a spokesman, who said “all creative campaigns are under review at the moment.”
Before the coronavirus reached pandemic proportions, BMW had started rolling out a new logo designed for digital marketing communications. The biggest change is that the thick outer ring in the circular logo went from a solid black to transparent, a tweak that drew criticism from some design mavens.
Dreher, who took the U.S. post after working in BMW’s central marketing department in Munich, in a recent interview addressed that criticism. He also gave an early read on the potential fallout from the coronavirus and outlined how BMW plans to invest more in streaming TV. What follows has been lightly edited and condensed.
How is BMW dealing with the coronavirus pandemic? Are you canceling marketing activities?
We have an events calendar—events that we sponsor where somebody else runs the event and has to make a decision if they postpone or cancel. Then we have our own events, like our own driving events. Right now we’ve made some first decisions of trying to postpone. Sometimes we can do that, but sometimes when you rent a racetrack for a driving event, you don’t have availability later in the year. Luckily, the huge events, the big hitters—like a big golf tournament that is coming in summer—there is nothing that comes in April and May, which is good because we don’t have to make these decisions.
Lots of organizers are delaying marketing industry events until the fall. Cannes Lions has moved to October, for instance. Is it realistic for so much to happen in this condensed period?
If everybody cancels and postpones events for the next two months, and wants to push into the last quarter, then the last quarter gets busy—that is simple math. Not everybody will find an open spot. Then there are holidays. It will be a year of compromise. We also don’t know how long the whole situation with coronavirus will take place. I don’t hope it, but it could be we don’t run events for the next six months.
BMW had a great year in 2019 in the U.S., overtaking Mercedes-Benz to take the luxury sales crown. How will you keep the momentum going in 2020?
When it comes to 2020, to be honest we are quite optimistic. Yeah, we took the crown. When you look at the product portfolio, we are in very good shape. That was the case last year, but also when it comes to this year and the years to come. We have a lot of new cars that we introduced into the market last year. These launches go right into the heart of our target audience.
Will you be increasing marketing spending?
I don’t think it makes sense to throw more money into the marketplace to be successful. The strategy here at BMW North America is to spend the money wisely—especially when it comes to media. It’s not just about having the right marketing budget and push behind the campaign, it also needs to be relevant for the audience. You have to be unique, you have to be different, you have to stand out from the crowd, you have to have stopping power—because otherwise people will not recognize your communication.
Talk about your logo change.
When it comes to a world where most people, especially younger audiences, consume communication on a smartphone, then you don’t need a super complicated or complex logo anymore, which is very, very detailed and comes from a time 20 years ago where we were proud to have a complex logo. Now you have these little screens and this complexity has no benefit anymore. It even limits us sometimes. That is why we simplified the logo.
But the change drew some criticism.
When you touch your logo after 20 years, there are of course people who have an opinion on that. And to be honest that is absolutely alright. In this day and age, I even appreciate the dialogue. I would be surprised if we touched the logo after such a long time and everybody on this planet would say, ‘Yes that is beautiful, that is what it should be.’
Why didn’t you make the logo change on BMW vehicles?
When it comes to the car production investments, it becomes very, very complicated. And we said, ‘Let’s go now for the [marketing] communication first. We even can try how it works ... with some concept cars, and then we’ll make this decision in the future.’
Is BMW centralizing marketing decisions in Munich?
We have the biggest markets—like for example, China, U.S., U.K., Germany and some others—coming and meeting in Munich for these global communication and brand meetings every two months and then we discuss things like purpose. This is nothing that headquarters develops in a bubble. The markets have very, very strong say here. And our wish from all the marketing directors all over the world is that we develop a team that is true to BMW, has a lot of potential, but then can also be tweaked a little bit to the national specifics to make it very suitable for me here in the U.S. but also for my colleague in China, to make sure we don’t have 50 different purpose discussions in the future.
It sounds like you will have a global campaign coming this summer that will be tweaked for the U.S. market?
What agency will handle that?
That is not even decided yet. We went down the route in headquarters to say ‘OK, let’s see as many possible directions as possible,’ and also new agencies were tried out in Munich—people who did not work with BMW before from completely other industries which I really appreciate, to have really creative people who are not limited to certain things and patterns.
BMW hired Goodby Silverstein & Partners for the U.S. before you arrived here. Are you sticking with them?
Yeah, that is all in a very good place. Goodby also is part of global campaign development. The 2 series campaign that now is in the U.S. has been developed by Goodby, but it is the global campaign.
What is the status of the tagline, the Ultimate Driving Machine?
It’s an amazing brand claim and we keep it. The Ultimate Driving Machine can mean so many things for so many people. When you look at a car like the i3 [a small battery-electric car], which is not the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ in the traditional sense like going to a racetrack, because that is not how this car has been developed. For some people, the Ultimate Driving Machine is a car that connects instantly with your mobile device because that is the most important thing for you.
This is your first assignment in the U.S. What surprises you the most about this market?
How diverse the target audience is. I have people in the U.S. who I can reach with very traditional messages. And at the same time in other areas I need completely different messages, communication assets and communication channels. It’s very complicated and exhausting because we have to do all of it, and we can’t stop anything yet.
Are you still consistent with your TV spend?
TV, it still works. But when you look at all these streaming opportunities, this is changing significantly. Right now, my head is all around, do I get into the Netflixes, and the Hulus and Disney+? Because these things are taking over more and more.
How are you working with Netflix?
We have to be more creative now. A simple product placement is not working anymore.
Then what can you do?
We do the placement of course as well. We want the people in these shows and films and series to drive our latest products, that is for sure. But we want to do more with them.
I am very much right now into the idea of working exclusively with one of those studios or brands to have one of their new shows—where we believe it will be a big hit in the future—working with the talent that at the moment the cast is not like big names ... and make them brand ambassadors for BMW. Just imagine, they only have a few thousand followers on their Instagram accounts. After the first season of such a show, they have millions. I want to be linked to these people from the very beginning to get some of the glory.