Showing a fresh face

Emphasising sustainability is key for one leading car manufacturer


The 2007 annual report by the BMW Group is a sleek, elegant affair.

Smart black text and minimalist graphs are precisely set on cool, white pages, illustrated by carefully-selected glossy images of their acclaimed cars.

Other pictures show technicians, racing teams, landscapes and city skylines: efficiency, industry, power. However, skip forward just a few years later, and the tone is very different. In their report looking back on 2010, the wealth of information is still there, with headings such as “Consolidated companies”, “Cost of sales” and “Pension provisions”. But in the photographs the vehicles are on equal footing with candid shots of employees hard at work and customers testing their new purchases with undisguised glee. The cars are pictured not in some gleaming showroom or under stark factory lights, but pulling up outside a bar in Madrid (a ‘Cerveceria Alemana’, no less: a nice touch) or crowded by hungry seagulls in Vancouver. This time, the car is firmly part of the environment, a contributing member of society. The 2010 annual report kicked off a new identity for BMW, with a wholly different look and feel to the group’s approach to sustainability.

The next step

This theme of social awareness and focus on people’s interaction with BMW is continued via their What’s Next campaign, which had ran for a year before receiving an image-overhaul this July and gained momentum with September’s Frankfurt Motor Show. According to Bill McAndrews, BMW’s head of communication strategy corporate communications, the campaign’s new look is designed to bring it into closer alignment with the corporate strategy announced in 2007, as well as the group’s long-established sustainability strategy. McAndrews’s department runs this new campaign, and the group drew on support from two Munich-based agencies, Becc and InterONE. “We told them that we wanted to keep our What’s Next idea - it was a successful initiative, because we had done some studies talking to various groups, and most of them told us “well, it’s interesting what BMW has done in the past but where is the company going? What’s around the corner?” BMW has always been an innovator, always thinking about the next step.”

Home videos

McAndrews described the planning stages to Communication Director: “We began to look at issues of sustainability and deciding how we want to deal with these issues (…) at its most basic level, we’re now communicating what BMW has been doing for years.” As an example, he cites the campaign’s handling of the issue of demographic change, a key challenge facing Germany, and Europe as a whole. In one of the videos on the What’s Next website, an employee with 40 years’ experience with BMW is filmed at the group’s plant in Dingolfing, about 100 km north-east of Munich. To a backing track of modishly fuzzy guitar music, Mr Lang is shown enjoying the benefits of considerable investment by the group into making the workplace more age appropriate: tilted screens show, elastic floorings, cranes to lift heavy material.

The video is part of a set that spearheads the campaign’s revitalised image, and focuses on employee’s roles within the group: at the time of going to print, other videos include zero-emission vehicles and environmentally-friendly materials. For McAndrews, it is vital that the videos have substance in that they feature real employees (or ‘associates’, as the BMW Group prefers to say) talking about real issues. “We only use real customers and associates, real people”, he told Communication Director; “these are not models.” For McAndrews, associates “are the best and the most credible ambassadors we have.” He identifies BMW’s history of innovation and “tight-knit community” as lying behind the new drive that is conveyed in the videos. (As further evidence of this company pride, McAndrews points to BMW’s “extremely low” attrition rate).

Training the team

When asked whether these online videos were deliberately designed to position BMW as a great employer, McAndrews replied: “I’m not sure I would use the word ‘deliberate’, but the briefing was quite clear - we wanted the campaign to bring forward various aspects we feel are definitely in the forefront.” Regardless of intent, the campaign has certainly had an invigorating effect on the workforce, according to McAndrews: “What’s interesting about the associates that have participated so far, is that we have received great emails back from them telling us that their colleagues are speaking with them about it – that it has sparked an interest in people. We have also received calls from journalists who’ve seen these ads who want to write about these topics. So that was a very positive side-effect. That’s another thing we are quite pleased about.”

To underline the importance of the issues at the heart of the campaign, in-house training has increasingly dealt with sustainability, as McAndrews explains: “Over the last years, we have increased training programmes. For example, in the last year alone every employee had an average of 2.4 days of training, and the previous year it was 1.6.(…) and we believe, at the end of the day, this will make BMW an even more successful company.”

The wider campaign continues to grow, with roll-outs planned in various German cities. But there is a strong focus on the website itself, as well as other channels for communicating the group’s sustainability engagement. For example, want to learn more about brake energy regeneration or aerodynamics? There’s an app for that. Website traffic is closely monitored, as well as press coverage.

The human touch

Beyond the electronic gadgetry, McAndrews stresses the idea of the campaign’s authenticity. “Being authentic gives us credibility”, he told Communication Director. “That makes the campaign more accessible, which in turn makes the company feel more genuine.” The very human faces featured on the What’s Next website are more than accessories to the gleaming, polished cars. They represent a very different aspect of the Munich-based powerhouse, a warmer and more accessible side. According to McAndrews, “At the end of the day, there’s nothing like a person to person connection, even in today’s world… perhaps especially in today’s world. I hesitate to say it’s a trend, but I see there’s more of a response to this type of ad. When you go the site there’s a tendency now to stay there and watch the videos, and it gives a whole new aspect of the company that always existed – it just was never out there.

Expert Opinion

“The automotive industry is facing major challenges: tough and persistently tight emission limits, increasing commodity prices, increasing shortage of qualified and skilled personnel, growing competition from Asia – to name only some of the most prominent ones. Corporate communication is well advised to strategically assimilate those issues in a proactive manner (and early enough!), otherwise it shall be judged as inactive and shiftless, especially in the era of the internet and social media. A further worldwide trend is represented through what we call ‘authenticity’. BMW’s What’s Next campaign picks up on those challenges and responds to the ongoing trend for more authenticity. The concept is convincing because it places emphasis on real testimonials – real customers, associates and staff. The technical quality and dramaturgical approach is excellent. So far, so good. However, the whole concept is nothing new. BMW is tardily jumping on the current bandwagon rather than developing a unique and innovative concept. This applies to the concept of communicative authenticity, as well as to the selected topics, for example sustainability and demographic change. The latter needs to be embedded into an ambitious and unrivalled diversity concept (age, gender, ethnicity etc.). Instead it is poorly displayed through the improvement of workplace ergonomics for the elderly, recently introduced at many other corporations, too. The opportunities which the convincing overall concept offers have been largely wasted.”

Romy Fröhlich, Professor of Communication, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich
Romy Fröhlich is a former president of the German Communication Association (DGPuK) and former head of the German Public Relations Association’s (DPRG) Commission for Education in Public Relations. She was a visiting scholar at the Ohio State University in 1989, and at the University of Newcastle, Australia in 2002. She is a member of several Associate Editorial (Advisory) Boards and scientific journal review boards.

“In order to ensure that individual mobility can be maintained at today’s levels of quality, car manufacturers have to develop alternative drive and fuel technologies. A campaign like BMW’s What’s Next serves to illustrate the consistent focus on sustainability of a company. The public debate in Germany on the issue of sustainability generally proceeds from a technical perspective: comparing the CO2 emissions of different models is an important part of tests. And when buying a car, the ‘g CO2/km’ value is a crucial criterion and is firmly established in customers’ minds. Therefore, new vehicles are often advertised with this value in mind. The resulting problem is that manufacturers can easily be compared on this basis, so they have to find ways to differentiate themselves from their competitors. The What’s Next campaign seems suitable for this purpose. Aside from cool technology, the customer is shown the company’s many efforts. By focusing on people, the campaign receives a personal touch, one of the many building blocks to successfully building a brand identity. However, it will only be successful if the technical facts show, in parallel, a similar picture. The campaign will therefore support and increase confidence in sustainability progress. In particular, the success of the manufacturers of strongly motorised models depends on the credibility of their efforts to improve the environment.”

Marcus Krüger, Spokesperson, ADAC
Marcus Krüger has been spokesperson for the automotive industry in the public relations department of ADAC, Europe’s largest automobile club. He began his career in 2000 at the Center for Automotive Research in the University of Applied Sciences in Gelsenkirchen, a role he continued until 2008. During this time, he managed the automobile brand index ADAC AutoMarxX and worked on ADAC’s customer satisfaction study Praxistest