BARCELONA -- In the scramble to stay relevant to digital natives more interested in smartphones than cars, automakers must be prepared to take more risks when positioning their brands and not shy away from edgy subject matter, a top BMW executive said.
Speaking to attendees at the Automotive News Europe Congress here on Wednesday, Hildegard Wortmann said it was not technological developments or regulatory issues that are pushing the current transformation in the industry, but changing customer tastes. Therefore, brands had little choice but to change with them.
Millennials in key markets such as China are less receptive to traditional channels for distributing content as their consumption habits shift primarily to online platforms where advertising has less sway. This risks commoditizing even strong brands and is forcing companies such as BMW to constantly reinvent their organizations to maintain a competitive position.
"They don't care anymore about a brand telling you how to live, what to do, how to behave, where to shop -- their world is completely seamless between virtual and real and with a clear global focus, but still they themselves have a tiny world of brands, which they think are relevant for their life," said Wortmann, who is senior vice president brand at BMW. "They want brands that behave like human beings."
Since advertising no longer has the same reach, marketing executives need to be more willing to stretch the limits and be prepared to go directly to the customers and take a stance on key social issues such as gay and lesbian rights. Wortmann referred to it as providing "thought leadership."
She conceded that risks were inevitable when venturing into all new areas, such as when her team placed a specially designed BMW i8 at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California.
"A few years ago, I would have probably gotten fired for going to a festival with sex, drugs, rock and roll," Wortmann said.
Taking the risk brought rewards as the social media impact was immediate with people posting pictures of themselves in front of the BMW i8. "We're using their community in order to boost our message," Wortmann said.
The BMW executive also said the automaker has overhauled its marketing department completely, replacing functional responsibilities for areas such as TV and print that had a "launch and forget" mentality moving from one product campaign to another. Instead she created a content studio at BMW's headquarters in Munich that continuously mines information and reacts instantly.
"Any social media, any news on any channels that you can imagine – we see that live in our control center, our little war room, in real time," she said.
This new way of interacting has forced Wortmann to change the makeup of her team. "At the moment, I am not recruiting marketing experts. I am recruiting data analysts, who are capable of not just doing the data crunching, but really interpreting the right things out of that, which we need in order to take the right direction for the brand."