BMW takes next-gen approach to marketing

Kevin A. Wilson
Special to The Detroit News

Experts agree that the future of the automobile industry depends largely on the decisions and preferences of millennial-generation buyers.

BMW North America President and CEO Ludwig Willisch thinks he knows something about selling cars to those born between 1980 and 2000 — and a string of record sales years for his company suggests he may be right.

The one thing he knows best is that they’re vastly different from his own baby boom generation.

Speaking at the Automotive News World Congress on Wednesday in Detroit, Willisch said, “One big mistake is to lump (millennials) all into one group. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a recipe for disaster.”

BMW is aiming at that small portion of the millennials who can afford to shop for luxury cars. They have household incomes of $150,000 or more, resting in the upper portion of millennial one-percenters. Collectively, they control twice as much wealth as the bottom 20 percent.

They’re also impervious to traditional marketing methods. “If you think giving a millennial a test drive is going to sell a car, you are sadly mistaken,” Willisch said.

BMW is transforming the dealership experience so that the first person a potential customer encounters is a product expert, called a Genius, who can answer all the questions, demonstrate all the features, but can’t close the deal. Only if they are truly interested will they be introduced to a sales representative.

Where older generations may be overwhelmed by the number of choices BMW offers, millennials are in pursuit of the just-right fit to their lifestyles.

That includes offering experiences that involve technology. Willisch noted a partnership with GoPro, whose cameras can be linked directly to the car and displayed on the console screen. Affiliations with popular products and personalities are more likely to influence purchase decisions of than any amount of direct advertising, Willisch said.

“Some, particularly in urban areas, may not be interested in owning a BMW or any car at all at this stage in their lives, so we’ve also partnered in a global ride-sharing program,” Willisch noted.

This exposure to BMW products may generate sales years or decades later, or evolve to business relationships as a mobility provider rather than a carmaker. BMW’s iVentures program invests in mobility startups. Willisch said that in Europe, the mobility programs have touched 500,000 customers over five years. The U.S. program is younger but growing fast.

Automotive News Group Publisher KC Crain asked Willisch if he could foresee a day when iVentures becomes as big as BMW itself. “As big as financial services, certainly,” Willisch replied.

BMW is celebrating its centennial this year and will mark that milestone with events on each continent, and one particularly in the United States. Willisch said “it won’t be about looking back at the past 100 years, but looking forward to the next 100.” That may be just what millennials want to hear.