BMW is… joy?

By Ingrid Fetell Lee


Quick! Name the car you think of when I say “joy.”

…VW bug? …Mini Cooper? …BMW?

This new BMW “joy” positioning is being rolled out so softly it’s hard to tell where it’s going yet, but so far it feels like there’s a disconnect between the BMW people know and love and the BMW the brand is selling.

In “The Making of The Story of Joy” video, a behind-the-scenes look at the hero ad for the new campaign, an unidentified BMW rep is quoted as saying:

You buy goosebumps and you buy smiles and you buy adrenaline and you buy speed and you buy stories and experiences and emotion and it makes me smile even thinking about it. And that’s joy, and that’s what you get when you buy BMW, and it’s what the brand has always been about.

Really? Because I thought BMW was always about the cold metallic awesomeness of German engineering. For three decades, BMW called itself the “ultimate driving machine,” a positioning that reinforced ideas of performance, quality, speed, and luxury and kept the focus firmly on the vehicles. A quick browse of BMW’s brandtags is all that’s needed to confirm the clear understanding that rewarded such consistency of message across the company’s design and communications for all those years.

It’s unclear whether the change had an impetus or is just change for change’s sake, but evidently BMW’s brand managers felt they needed a more emotional positioning. They’ve encapsulated this idea in the new tagline “sheer driving pleasure,” which actually feels like a very appropriate evolution from “ultimate driving machine”: symmetrical to the original, with a more emotional and evocative tone that focuses on the response (pleasure) rather than the stimulus (machine).

All good so far. But from pleasure to joy is a much bigger leap, and a less credible one for this very masculine, mature brand. Pleasure is intense, sensuous, and thrilling; joy is childlike, whimsical, charming, cute, and sweet. Heart-racing pleasure makes perfect sense as emotional territory for BMW to own; the sweetness of joy feels like a force-fit.

Which is how it seems in these ads. In the “Story of Joy” ad (still Europe-only, for the moment), the voiceover describes joy as “efficient, dynamic, and unstoppable,” which makes the brand feel about as emotionally arousing as a FedEx truck. In an effort to inspire passion, the ad shows a BMW festival, a little boy surrounded by toy cars in his bedroom, and a bunch of drivers happily “joy-riding”. It does make you smile. But none of it has the humor of most VW ads, the odd charm of the old Sheet Metal Saturn ad, or the irreverent emotional punch of Mercedes nostalgia ads (like this one). BMW gets closer to joy’s quirky sensibility with the just-released “Jump for Joy” ad; but unfortunately this flies the furthest off the mark from the sleekness, aspiration, and power the brand is known for.

There’s no question that BMW is brand with enormous equity. They were probably right to pursue a more emotional tone in their marketing, but at this early stage it’s just not clear they hit upon the right emotion. In pursuit of joy, are they trading something more valuable?

October 1st, 2009


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