BMW's Mini brand is at a crossroads, and to find out where the German/British brand is headed, I am chatting with Jochen Goller, senior vice-president at Mini. Naturally, the conversation turns to Charlize Theron, the stunning South African actor.
About a decade ago, Goller was Mini's liaison on The Italian Job, the 2003 caper starring Theron, Mark Wahlberg, a fleet of the recently launched and reinvented Minis and a bunch of gold bars. That movie was a marketing smash, even though it was just a remake of the original 1969 film starring a young Michael Caine, an amusing Noël Coward, a fleet of original Minis and, of course, gold bars.
Theron, he says, is as pleasant as she is beautiful and the movie and her association with it an example of how Mini dialled up the buzz for the brand's relaunch. In 2014, Mini is in the early stages of yet again reinventing itself. If Theron is part of Mini's future marketing plans, he won't say. Here's hoping.
Goller will say that for the past 18 months, the leadership at BMW and within the Mini brand have reviewed Mini, examining its strengths and weaknesses. Over all, Mini is on solid footing, but "times have changed," says Goller. "There are a lot of interesting, quirky small cars out there and we feel Mini has been copied a million times.
"We now have to enter into the next phase. We have always been trendsetting in the automotive industry and we want to do that again."
Mini is starting this next phase with two new, important core models: the three-door and the five-door, what Goller calls "the backbone of the product line. They are completely re-engineered. This is the time to build on that. We will sharpen the Mini brand."
The time certainly is right for it. Through October, Mini's global sales were down 5.3 per cent though, in October, sales jumped 13.4 per cent. Mini officials say sales will keep improving once the full model switch from old to new is complete.
The current seven-model lineup, peppered with niche and low-volume models such as the Roadster and Paceman, will likely be pared down to five or so. What was an ever-increasing parade of new Mini models has run its course, Goller says. In fact, all the Mini proliferation had a serious side-effect of diluting the brand, says Goller.
"Mini's image and market position need to be sharpened," he says, adding, "we do not need more models; we need a stronger differentiation between the models. And that's what you'll see from the Mini brand – a very sharp positioning with models that are strongly differentiated."
The future of Mini has been on display for the better part of a year. The six-door Clubman concept shown in the spring at the Geneva auto show reflects Mini's goal to produce more high-volume models that appeal to today's practical customer – as opposed to the outgoing Clubman with its nonsensical three-door design. The production version of the next Clubman will not differ much from the Geneva show car.
The Superleggera concept roadster unveiled at the Paris auto show and on display at the Los Angeles show, suggests Mini wants to grow up. This concept is different than the current Mini Roadster, which is both small and fairly impractical.
When BMW's take on Mini arrived in 2001, the world was a different place, says Goller. Mini reflected the zeitgeist of the times – cars that were fun and frivolous and, in the case of Mini, delivered go-cart handling. But since the global financial meltdown that started with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the climate of the times has changed.
"Before, it was superficial enjoyment," says Goller. "Now, from a substance perspective, we have to continue to deliver the go-cart handling, but more. Our customers still want to enjoy that, but they are much more sensitive to a brand doing something good and adding value. This is what we'll be adding to Mini."
Next up: How will Mini sell itself in the marketplace. If the cars are less frivolous, has the age of oddball Mini marketing ended as well?
The smart money says yes. Mini is growing up fast – and right before our eyes.
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