WOODCLIFF LAKE, N.J. -- Mini is owned by BMW, but there's a broad gulf between the prestigious luxury marque and the funky small-car brand.
Mini USA is housed in a corner of the three-story BMW of North America headquarters here. BMW has uncluttered cubicles occupied by employees in upscale business garb. Mini's work area is bulging with quirky displays -- an old British phone booth, a life-size cardboard cutout of U.S. brand boss Jim McDowell's head superimposed on an astronaut suit, neon Mini signs and paraphernalia from launches and marketing displays. The head of dealer development sits on a big, blue exercise ball instead of a chair. Meetings are held in a lounge with black walls and black furniture.
Staffers dress like it's casual Friday every day of the week. Some look like roadies for a rock band in their black T-shirts and motorcycle jackets. McDowell's taste runs to loud Hawaiian shirts or head-to-toe black for high-level business meetings.
Mini can do and say what BMW dares not. Two years ago, the glam rock band Kiss kicked off Mini's new test-drive program, Mini Rocks the Rivals, at the New York auto show. Three members of Kiss bounced onto the Mini stand followed by McDowell in a curly wig and outrageous white and black Kiss makeup.
That's probably one of Mini's milder stunts.