This story first appeared in Fast Company April 26th, 2012.
My job is creating futureproof brands for clients. I believe those brands are built on sustainability, innovation, design, insight and sociability.
Among these attributes, insight has a special place. Get it right, and your brand lines up with what tomorrow’s consumers demand. Get it wrong, and you become the next Segway scooter.
I’ve often used BMW i, the new BMW sub-brand as an example of great futureproof insight. More than great cars like the BMW i3 and BMW i8, the project is based on making mobility – not just driving – exciting in the future.
To this end, the company founded BMW i Ventures, a group funding entrepreneurs with groundbreaking ideas on getting around urban areas using all available transport – whether it’s the subway, a bike or walking.
The big insight here? With the rise of megacities, consumers will most likely drive less. But they’ll continue to search out exciting ways of getting around. By intersecting this need with BMW’s expertise in creating exciting transport, the car manufacturer is today cornering a market that – to many other companies – is still invisible. It’s futureproofing its brand.
A New Consumer
Speaking with BMW i Brand Manager Uwe Dreher, I got a glimpse of another surprising insight the carmaker is tapping into.
Dreher, who is speaking at this year’s Sustainable Brands conference , told me about research the company had conducted as part of the new sub-brand’s development process.
The team discovered a group of affluent consumers – particularly in the San Francisco area – who were expressing their green allegiance by driving seemingly downmarket cars.
As Dreher said, “It seemed incongruous for someone to live in a $5 million home and drive a $35,000 Prius instead of a Porsche or Ferrari. But that’s what’s happening.”
Dreher conceded these green affluents were a small niche. But BMW is betting they’re a strong predicator of future luxury trends. And the carmaker is developing BMW i to answer their need for authentic, sustainable driving excitement.
A Brand Built From The Ground Up
When I questioned Dreher on the wisdom of launching i as a sub-brand, he said the decision hinged on two points.
First, being arm’s length from the master brand allowed the team to engage in a complete rethink, as opposed to incrementally changing existing BMW models. Because of this, radical innovations like an aluminum frame and carbon fibre body were incorporated.
Second, the separation from the master brand allowed BMW i to brand itself as an authentic departure from the status quo. This wasn’t just a tweak, but a new idea with integrity. A crucial consideration for consumers hypersensitive to greenwash.
Lessons To Innovators
- Insight, insight, insight – The BMW i project isn’t just a flight of fancy, but a business venture grounded in the needs of consumers. What makes it exciting is that the insights are based on consumers of tomorrow. But they are solid insights nonetheless.
- The future exists today – BMW discovered the green affluents – even though they’re just a whisper of a demographic today. By learning how to serve this group today, the carmaker will help build a strong brand tomorrow.
- New brand, new momentum – BMW created BMW i as a sub-brand, unencumbered by tradition. After all, you can’t race forward if the master brand won’t let you go.