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How BMW used smart marketing to become the Ultimate Driving Machine

Marketing is simple… but so many fail to get that

If there was once a perfect example of brand marketing it was BMW. Many forget that until the early 1970s BMW was essentially a niche carmaker. Their big product was the iconic 2002 – a car that they have sold since the late 1960s. But then, in the mid-1970sthey did something that was brilliant. They rolled out three new models. First in 1972 came the mid-sized 5 Series. Then, in 1975, the first small 3 Series. Finally, in 1977 came the 7 Series. This was perfect Goldilocks marketing. You had the small and sporty 3- Series, the bigger and capable 5 Series, and the bigger-yet and luxe 7 Series. The pricing was like a ladder, there was a car for every segment size, and you moved people up the ladder. Sales exploded when they rolled out a marketing campaign to tie the new line together:‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ defined the company and positioned it to crash into and redefine the luxury car world in the 1980s. It has to be the most memorable ad effort in the history of the auto industry.

The tagline was first rolled out in the 1970s Ammirati & Puris and car genius named Bob Lutz did the creative. The campaign debuted in 1973 with the new 5 Series.

Let’s be honest, this was not a great time to buy a car. The oil embargo was forcing Detroit to build smaller engines at a time when their cars were getting bigger and bigger. Japan was still a fringe player, and Mercedes was making pretty staid cars.

As American cars built for a fuel-efficient world they were of poor quality and design, think the Pinto and the Vega. But then came a family of fun, reliable, and exciting sports cars from Germany.

American cars like the Thunderbird of the 1970s were no joy to drive, and BMW was the first major line to emphasize the driving experience. It resonated, and the products, well defined and well marketed, became an icon built on functionality, design, and performance.

The slogan became an integral part of BMW’s marketing campaigns and was ubiquitous in magazine advertisements. It drove the marketing campaigns and helped to increase sales and create a distinctive positioning for the BMW brand. The slogan topped ad campaigns from BMW for decades.

Soon M versions of their cars became must haves, and BMW topped every car magazine list. Owing a “Beemer” became the ultimate attainable status symbol in the 1990s, even though the term refers to a BMW motorcycle, not a car. The cars are called Bimmers.

If we look at the BMW line of 1990, the marketing logic shines through: By then there was the legendary 3 Series family, along with the 5 and 7 Series, the 6 Series coupe, and the Z1 and 8 Series sports coupes. The prices all made sense, one car led to another, and all featured BMW handling, fun and design.

By contrast, Chevrolet, then the leading US brand, offered a mismatched line of cars that overlapped, and often had little in common – or in brand. There were sports cars like the Camero, Corvette and Beretta, sedans like the Corsica, Lumina, Caprice and Celebrity, small cars such as the Cavalier, plus three vans, and an assortment of pickup trucks. The brand was in a disarray, and hard to define.

A 1990 Corvette is worth about $7,000 today, a 1990 BMW M3 can set you back as much as $60,000. New, the BMW was around $34,000, the Corvette about $31,000. BMW was the Ultimate Driving Machine. And Chevy in 1990? The Heartbeat of America. In 1990 BMW sold more than 63,000 cars in the US. In 2018 they sold more than 311,000. Chevy had tumbled to 715,000, driven by truck sales.

That is power of branding.

So, what are we to learn for all this? Well, one thing is that the stronger the brand, the more value both the consumer and the organization get. And, that having a clear mission, vision, and promise help a company find real success. And, it is also that you can lose you way. Chevy’s parent GM went through several restructurings, and shed divisions and slimmed down. BMW, grew and grew. Today they offer a 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 series, and that is just the cars. Some car critics complain that BMW has lost its way, building cars that are not as responsive or handle as well.

The values of the brand and it sales have grown. Yes, they still use the Ultimate Driving Machine slogan, and Chevy is now Find New Roads – in fact in the 40 years Chevy has had more than a dozen slogans. Forty years later, BMW has a brand that is logical and resilient.

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