Exposed: Thirty seconds with a marketing maven: BMW’s Hendrik von Kuenheim

Driving up to BMW's Whitby, Ont.-based headquarters with the licence plate 'BMW 1' on his M3, Hendrik von Kuenheim clearly wears the brand that he calls 'the Italian suit of cars' on more than just his sleeve.

Driving up to BMW’s Whitby, Ont.-based headquarters with the licence plate ‘BMW 1′ on his M3, Hendrik von Kuenheim clearly wears the brand that he calls ‘the Italian suit of cars’ on more than just his sleeve.

Having said that, the president and CEO of BMW Group Canada, (which having sold 2,445 vehicles recorded its best month in June), still sees the need to ‘research the hell out of the market’ through Brand Monitor, BMW’s exclusive global internet research tool.

The Beemer veteran, who took the driver’s seat at BMW Canada in 1998 after a stint at the automaker’s operations in the Middle East, sat down with Strategy to explain why BMW doesn’t focus on niches, why he isn’t fazed by the impending arrival of the Mercedes Smart and how two agencies (Toronto-based Taxi and Cundari Integrated) are better than one.

What are some of the biggest trends currently shaping the luxury car category?

Diversification. Whereas 30 years ago, the Beetle sold close to a million cars, those times are gone. The market is going hyper-niche to respond to consumers’ needs. A professional couple without kids may want one sort of car to reflect their lifestyle, while a professional couple with a family wants another car.

Will BMW produce models with a certain segment in mind?

BMW always focuses on building the ultimate driving machine for a world customer. The strategy of designing a car for a segmented group, such as mothers, has always failed miserably, because it isolates and discredits the targeted group, by making them superior or inferior.

How do Canadians differ from automotive consumers elsewhere?

In 2000, our Brand Monitor showed that Canadians perceived the BMW brand as fun to drive, innovative, excellent on performance, and people liked the brand, but it was not perceived as excellent in terms of safety, because Canadians associate safety with size.

In response, we emphasized the active safety attributes of our vehicles in our communications. To give the customer peace of mind, we also started to cover service expenses, except for tire changes and brakes.

How much of your advertising is Canadian-specific, and how do you decide when to adopt?

If we adopt, it is often print. If a great photo shoot comes out of Boston, we may adopt it here. As an international company, we adopt to reduce costs. We have two agencies, Cundari [for BMW] and Taxi [for Mini] to promote healthy competition. This keeps them on their toes as they try to outdo each other.

In most countries, BMW and Mini have separate creative agencies [so that] there is a clear focus on each brand, and these are two different brands with different personalities. The Mini can be cheeky, BMW more conservative. In Canada last year, we sold over 15,000 BMWs and 2,700 Minis. If one agency oversaw both brands, there could be the inclination to focus on the higher volume brand. Ultimately, an automobile client is seen as a marquee account for ad agencies, therefore we have two agencies producing their best work for our two brands.

How do you plan to compete with Mercedes Smart?

Smart is a very good car, and very successful in Italy and France. We have to see whether North America will adopt it. Right now, Mini is the smallest car on the streets, and the Smart is a lot smaller than Mini. In Europe, as in Canada, Mini is also perceived as having strong performance characteristics, and Smart is not a competitor to Mini in Europe. We do not expect the situation to be different in Canada.