In the driving seat of diversity

The BMW Group’s approach to intercultural challenges, the diversity of its audience and its supply chain – and why BMW Group’s brochures don’t feature models.

Photo: BMW Group


The BMW Group’s partnership with the UN Alliance of Civilizations on the Intercultural Innovation Award is evidence that issues of intercultural communication, innovation, relevance to targeted audiences and organisational structure are important to the BMW Group. Could you explain why BMW wanted to be involved with an intercultural award in particular?

We have people from 90 different nations working in our facilities in Munich alone, not to mention the thousands of colleagues in our manufacturing plants and sales organisation across the world. Every day, we see how important it is for people from diverse cultural backgrounds to come together, to understand and respect each other, so they can work together to achieve a common aim. We don’t just believe intercultural understanding is essential to a well functioning business, economy and society, we know it is. The Intercultural Innovation Award started life as the BMW Group Award for Intercultural Learning back in 1997. It became the BMW Group Award for Intercultural Commitment in 2008, shifting the focus away from being purely to do with education and more to do with honoring organisations which work to promote intercultural understanding. A couple of years later we also began giving our awardees practical support – mentoring as well as monetary support. 2011 then saw a very significant change when the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations approached us to ask if we would be interested in forming a unique public-private partnership with them that could act as a model for future collaborations. They wanted to leverage our business experience and obviously having the UN as our partner opens a different set of doors to the ones we as an international corporation can access. Our awardees have confirmed that having both our names on the award means they are able to get a very wide range of people interested in what they are doing. Since the UNAOC became involved, it’s fair to say the award has broadened its horizons and become truly global. Finally I think it’s important to say that the BMW Group firmly believes in the concept of being a good “global citizen” and this is one of our many projects in the field of corporate social responsibility – it’s part of our contribution to global society. Recently, the board of management made intercultural innovation one of the two pillars of the company’s corporate social responsibility strategy, which I think demonstrates how committed we are to this initiative.

With headquarters in Munich, the BMW Group operates in markets around the globe. How are your external messages – from press releases to image brochures - adapted to reflect the diversity of these various markets? Are some brand messages or values better suited to, say, the North American market than in Germany?

We are fortunate at the BMW Group to have three very strong and distinctive premium brands: MINI, BMW and Rolls-Royce. Our continuing success depends on nurturing and developing these extremely attractive brands in an authentic way. Everyone who works for the BMW Group has a very clear idea of what the brands he or she is associated with stand for and the core values of each brand are something we bear very much in mind when developing our communications materials. Of course in the various markets, there exist slight variations of “Freude am Fahren”. One simple example is the slogans in the UK and the USA. In Britain, a BMW stands for “Sheer Driving Pleasure” whereas in the USA, it stands for “The Ultimate Driving Machine”. No matter, it is all about the joy of driving and providing top quality and innovations to our customers, wherever they are located around the world. Here in our headquarters in Munich, we see it as our role to provide the basic structure which the markets can then take and adapt as appropriate. It’s a bit like a gentleman’s suit – there’s a basic pattern which they all follow but they can be altered to fit any given person. Incidentally, to a certain degree the same can be said of our products. For example, BMW customers in China often like to be chauffeur-driven so we have developed long-wheel-base versions of our most popular sedans to cater for that. In other markets the differences are not quite so noticeable, but when it comes to the interior specifications in particular, there are some things which are far more popular in some markets than others, so we have to reflect that in our production. When it comes to corporate communications, this also reflects our core corporate values whilst being adapted for local sensibilities. In our culture programme, for example, we offer free classical music concerts in London whilst in Mexico, we support the country’s biggest street festival. Our educational Junior Campus project is being rolled out in several locations – whilst in China it will have a significant road-safety aspect, in the UK, the emphasis will rather be on sustainable mobility.

Could you describe the structure of the communications function at the BMW Group and explain the ethos behind its development?

When Maximilian Schöberl took over the corporate affairs division in 2006, he centralised the structure, bringing communications colleagues in the headquarters, in the markets and in our manufacturing plants together under the same roof. We did this to enhance and guarantee one-voice communication. This centralised approach also helps us to leverage our talent and ensure that people are developed appropriately. A very important part of that development is a flow of staff between headquarters and our other locations – this obviously helps mutual understanding of the way we work and the challenges we face. Here in Munich, we also have a dedicated team which works to co-ordinate and support our colleagues in other countries. They are also responsible for our global communications intranet platform, where people can share experiences, ideas and best practice. An annual review is carried out with the central department here at headquarters and the regional heads from the markets to assess each market’s achievements. This is also where career development and remuneration is decided. This process is taken very seriously and demonstrates to those colleagues working overseas that we here in headquarters recognise the importance of their work.

Does the structure of the BMW Group’s communications facilitate more effective communications with diverse, global audiences?

Yes, I believe it does. Our structure in corporate communications actually mirrors in many ways that of our sales division. We offer our global colleagues a firm foundation for them to build on according to their local requirements. We are also here to offer guidance and support where necessary. We have a very strong bond with our market colleagues. I personally travel at least once or twice a month to our offices and facilities abroad in order to foster those links, because I truly believe that although technology is wonderful, face-to-face communication is still extremely important. Clearly those who come from and live in the markets know better than we in headquarters how to communicate with their audience and which local channels are the most effective. It would be arrogant – and foolish – of us to believe otherwise. Nevertheless, it is crucial to the integrity of our business and our brands that we all, wherever we are, work in accordance with our corporate principles and our brands’ core values.

How much input do communications teams in different regions have in shaping BMW’s messages?

The core communications strategy is discussed annually then broken down to look at which parts are most relevant to which regions. All our key markets have their own public relations managers who represent their requirements to headquarters.

Internally, are there complications in communicating to over 100,000 workers around the world?

Communicating with any group of people this size has its challenges! But of course this is one area where modern communication technology can be enormously helpful. We have a very well-developed intranet which offers several online platforms for various topics. But of course personal communication is also extremely important and we operate an information cascade system, ensuring the right people receive the relevant information at the appropriate time. Here our managers – in every area of the company – are our most important internal communications tool.

The BMW Group’s global supplier network is another important audience: how important is supplier diversity for the company?

When it comes to selecting suppliers, we have very clear guidelines set down by our colleagues in the compliance and purchasing departments. There are four criteria that are particularly important when comparing potential suppliers: innovation, quality, flexibility and competitive costs. Worldwide we have over 12,000 suppliers working in over 70 countries. You may have heard a phrase we use a lot, “production follows the market”. Well logically, suppliers follow production. This means that the geographical spread of our suppliers is expanding, especially into new production locations like Brazil and – in the coming years – Mexico.

Do you find that suppliers in different regions have diverse attitudes to issues such as risk management, human rights and sustainability? If so, how do you get the entire network on the same page?

Our global supplier network does far more than just supply us with “things” – they also make a major contribution to value creation, quality and innovation. In other words, they play a crucial role in the success of the BMW Group. Because they are so integrated into our business, our suppliers have a significant impact on our sustainability performance. Clearly, it is essential that our partners fulfill the same environmental and social standards we set ourselves. To make sure this is the case, we have the BMW Group Supplier Sustainability Standard. This requires compliance with the UN Global Compact and other internationally recognised labour and social standards. We are constantly reviewing our sustainability risk management to make sure we and our suppliers are continuingly improving in this area. Risk management is the most important tool when it comes to ensuring compliance with sustainability standards. Our risk-management measures range from sustainability risk filters developed internally to a self-assessment questionnaire and sustainability audits. We also offer seminars, training and lectures for our purchasers and suppliers and recognise our most innovative suppliers with the Supplier Innovation Award. To make sure resource efficiency is continually improving throughout the supply chain we implement a variety of projects and make sure we stay in constant touch with our suppliers concerning their work.

Finally, is the audience for the BMW Group more diverse – in terms of ethnicity, gender, social class – today than before? What steps has the BMW Group taken to reflect this in its communications?

Today we offer many more products and services than in the past and this extended offer then naturally appeals to a wider range of people. For example, when the BMW 1 Series first went on sale, 70 per cent of people buying that car had never previously owned a BMW. We are expecting a similar conquest rate with the BMW 2 Series Active Tourer, which we are launching right now. Of course, when we’re planning our communications, we have different target groups in mind depending on what product we are talking about – a MINI customer has different interests to a Rolls-Royce customer – and we adjust our product communication accordingly. When it comes to external communication, all of us who work here are brand ambassadors. If you take a look at our recent annual image brochures you will see they reflect this high level of diversity – not only among our customers but also among our staff. And it’s important to know that every single individual seen or quoted in that publication is real – we don’t hire models!


Interview by Dafydd Phillips

Bill McAndrews

Born in the US, Bill McAndrews is vice president communications strategy, corporate and market communications at the BMW Group, where he has been a member of the corporate and governmental affairs division since September 2006. Before joining the BMW Group, Bill worked for RWE AG in Essen, Germany, where he was head of group press relations and deputy senior vice president of the group corporate communications division from 2001 onwards. Prior to that he was head of international communications at Deutsche Telekom, having previously worked in the same field with a range of other leading international DAX companies.