SHANGHAI -- How much do women in China love BMW's Mini? Perhaps a bit too much for Mini's comfort. Almost 80 percent of Mini owners in China are women, the highest level among any car brand, J.D. Power & Associates estimates.
Now, the company is taking pains to give its cars more masculine connotations. Hence the pool table in the Shanghai showroom, and the all-Mini road trip the company recently organized to Tibet.
"You don't want to tip into being a girlie car," Sean Green, head of Mini's China business, said in an interview in Beijing last week. "Not only do you alienate the men, you actually alienate a lot of women, because a lot of women won't want to buy a feminine brand."
The strategy helps show the variety of ways automakers are seeking to carve out their place in the world's biggest auto market, with more than 100 nameplates targeting an estimated 1 billion drivers within a decade.
China is the fourth-largest market for Mini after the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany, and vies globally with Daimler AG's Smart brand, Fiat SpA's 500 and Volkswagen AG's New Beetle for buyers of small urban cars.
Deliveries of the Mini, owned by BMW AG, have risen 18 percent in China in the first five months of the year, outpacing the 11 percent growth in the overall passenger-vehicle market, according to company and auto association data. Mini sold 11,440 units in China in the period, outselling both the Smart and Fiat 500.
That's in spite of the fact that the Mini starts at 205,000 yuan ($33,000) in China, more than an Audi A3. The Mini has emerged as a status symbol among many Chinese women who like its looks and see its BMW connection as conferring luxury, according to Munling Cheong, market research director at Shanghai-based Labbrand Enterprise Management Consulting (Shanghai) Co.
"It's very cute. It appeals to women who are a bit playful, because the brand itself is playful," said Cheong, whose employer has advised Audi AG on how to name their cars in China.
To attract male buyers, Mini is being "overtly masculine in some of the communication style," said Green, who was previously head of sales and marketing for the brand in 26 European markets.
He cited the introduction of the John Cooper Works high-performance version in China in June 2013. The line is named after an engineer who developed a rally version of the Mini in the 1960s, featuring lowered sports suspension and 18- inch alloy wheels.
"You won't see a Hello Kitty Mini," Green said of the brand's product strategy. To bolster its image for dependability, Mini made a documentary about a convoy of Mini cars traversing some of China's most rugged and remote terrain through Tibet to the foot of Mount Everest.
Chen Chunguang, a Beijing resident, is among the converts. Chen, who owns a BMW X6 SUV and Mercedes-Benz S350 sedan, said he now prefers to drive his wife's four-door Mini Countryman for his commute.
"I didn't intend to buy a Mini," said Chen, 32, who nicknames his car "Little Blue." "After I test drove one, I changed my mind within half an hour. The handling was very good and there was a lot of power."
As part of its expansion plans, Mini will open 10 to 15 dealership a year in China, adding to the 97 it currently has, according to Green.
The company isn't looking at producing the Mini in the country for now, he said, even though it would allow it to avoid import duties of about 25 percent.
To be sure, Mini isn't about to give up its prized niche among high-income women, with 53 percent of its owners in China earning more than 20,000 yuan a month, compared with the industry average of 19 percent, according to Songlin Mei, J.D. Power China vice president and managing director.
Head of Mini's China business
"It's small, easy to park and maneuver," said Stella Yang, a 32-year-old research and marketing professional in Shanghai, who replaced her Audi A4 for a Mini Clubman two years ago. "I like the car's design."
China has 17 million college-educated women between 25 and 34 years of age, of whom at least 4.5 million are unmarried, according to Wang Feng, a sociology professor who teaches at Shanghai's Fudan University and the University of California, Irvine.
"It's a very powerful consumer group and getting larger," Wang said.
Mini zagged where others zigged at this year's auto show in Beijing. Most automakers at the event continued their reliance on female models, many scantily clad, to attract visitors to their booths.
At the Mini booth, the models included men in colorful T-shirts and dark jeans.
"It's one of the challenges you have, whenever you have a small car, you tend to move toward the female buyers," Green said. "Is it a problem for Mini? No, because we're still very successful. We welcome female buyers as we do male buyers."