How BMW is approaching the future of mobility

How BMW is approaching the future of mobility

Last week Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary and Brexit campaigner, upset some people.

That’s nothing new, but he upset the British car industry by saying that Brexit would not affect the industry in the UK because “traditional car companies will vanish” in the next 20 years to be replaced by automated cars.

As many pointed out to good old Boris, automated cars are still cars and they still need to be manufactured. There are a number of other reasons to dispute his claim, but there is no denying that the global car industry is embarking on a revolutionary period of change.

Which is why BMW is saying its future is not as a car company, the proponent of sheer driving pleasure, but as a mobility provider. That sounds less automotive-speak and more Google talk, but in 2016 the company, which started out as a manufacturer of aircraft engines more than a century ago, outlined its predictions for itself over the next 100 years.

Hildegard Wortmann


One of the key people overseeing this change is Hildegard Wortmann, senior vice-president Brand BMW. We caught up with her at the Frankfurt Motor Show where she explained how she and her colleagues are changing the brand.

She says the company started to change a couple of years ago, particularly in the luxury space.

One of the major things is that while BMW might own Rolls-Royce, the German car maker itself wants to establish more of an identity for its luxury models. That led to a new name, albeit an old name. Wortmann and her team created Bayerische Motoren Werke.

That is something of a mouthful and it is unlikely anyone is going to respond when asked what car they drive that they drive a Bayerische Motoren Werke. They will probably say something like BMW? But Wortmann wanted to create a brand name that sounds exclusive, along the lines of Louis Vuitton.

More luxury:

“We wanted to make it more specific, more luxury,” she told us. “We need to differentiate the luxury brand.”

This is all part of BMW becoming what Wortmann calls a “lifestyle company, rather than a car company”. She says the sooner it changes the better, but emphasises there are some elements that will not change.

For some, the most important element and the one that has been at the core of BMW for decades is the driver will retain the option to drive, even as autonomous cars begin to appear.

She fully supports the plan to retain driver’s cars, saying that the “consumer must be in control of how they drive”. However, she says that the car will become more of a retreat, a place where its occupants can enjoy time for themselves.

In what is probably one of the best marketing lines, she says when she gets into her car, she takes the view it is “my car, my castle”. Brilliant, why has no-one used that before? If your home is your castle, then why not your car?

Bizarrely, Wortmann’s minder was not too thrilled with us pointing out how it sums up how many people feel about their cars. We can only speculate that perhaps it is part of a future marketing campaign and he did not want another car company to nick it. But we were so taken with the way Wortmann perceives her personal space in a car that we had to share it.

Wortmann also points out it is vital the company and its vehicles or products must remain relevant. However, she says this is not necessarily for her to decide, adding that the market and society decides just what is relevant. Relevance is also not something that can be globally applied.

She says the times have gone when a company could create one television advert and show it worldwide with a common story. She says markets are now more diverse and this is also forcing a huge change in the way a company like BMW can conduct its marketing.

A prime example of this would be electric cars. Marketing BMW’s i division is easier in countries such as Norway or the Netherlands where electric vehicles (EV) are commonplace, but it is harder in a place such as SA where the market is not as well prepared for them.

However, Wortmann says the time has come to move BWM i to the next level. She says the first level was all about explaining the technology and educating the market. Now the consumer needs certain guidance on how the brand and the technology is moving as they make more informed decisions.

Technology is also a key component of the company’s future. She says she is constantly involved in discussions with the tech industry in order to ensure BWM remains relevant. The company also has to be quicker to respond to new tech, new trends and faster shifts in consumer demands. To help with this, she has created liquid teams, teams that can operate faster and with more autonomy. Also, anyone in the company can provide ideas and some of the ones in the pipeline have come from those not typically in the areas of product planning but elsewhere in the company.

When you look back at the past 100 years and just how much has changed, it is difficult to predict how the world will look at the end of the next hundred. BMW is adamant it will still build vehicles, but that is just the first of 12 different chapters that it has outlined in its proposals for the 100 years to come. – Mark Smyth