Yahoo! Report: Bright ideas at BMW

Uwe Ellinghaus, BMW UK's marketing director, talks about making the marque more approachable, the integral role the internet plays in its marketing campaigns, and the way the British are obsessed with their cars.

Uwe Ellinghaus has been the marketing director of BMW UK (BMW's third-biggest market globally) since 2004. He joined the BMW Group in 1998 as a consultant for brand strategy in its central marketing department in Munich, and was appointed general manager, market and trend research in 2001, with global responsibility for all market research activity for BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce.

On starting out After studying business administration in Germany and the US, I started my career in strategic market and communication research, working for the market research company GfK AG in Nuremberg, Germany. In 1998, I entered the BMW Group. Although a finance director colleague once called me the "most cost-conscious" marketing director he had ever met, I've always been more interested in the revenue, rather than the cost side of profitability.

On how the growth of the internet has affected BMW's marketing strategy It is stating the obvious that the role of online is growing. It is an integral part of all our campaigns. What sets the car industry apart is the additional role the web plays in the high- involvement purchase process. Our prospects and customers use the internet to systematically empower themselves early on in the purchase process, far before they contact a BMW dealership. Last year, we sent more than 190,000 qualified leads to dealers from our national homepage alone.

On the biggest marketing challenges we face The biggest challenge BMW faces is complacency. We have been so successful over the past decade that many employees and dealers think everything we do must be right. Progressive-minded middle classes represent a lucrative, growing and well-educated target group. But this is a time-pressured group, and is a difficult one to get hold of. We still have possible growth among females, and I hope I will still be alive when the car industry no longer calls women an "untapped potential". We believe "experiential branding" is a great chance to reach new audiences. Accordingly, we spend considerable amounts on our sports marketing activities, such as the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and Formula BMW. We have just signed a founding partner sponsorship agreement with The O2 - formerly the Millennium Dome - which will feature the BMW brand in public areas and VIP lounges.

On a recent online campaign that made me think "I want some of that" for BMW I admire the online work of my colleagues at MINI and wish I could be equally bold with BMW's online appearance.

On BMW's April Fool's Day advertisements The April Fool's Day ads were started by WCRS in the 80s, but we have not executed them every year. It is the aim of the ads to demonstrate that a serious, engineering-driven, German brand can laugh at itself and play with the existing user imagery of its drivers. Although few people are still fooled, the self-irony displayed by the April Fool's ads has had a positive influence on our image by making BMW more human and approachable. And maybe the ads also help to overcome the preconception in this country that Germans are humour-free.

On emissions Our answer to the increasing environmental concern is called "Efficient Dynamics". Under this title, we summarise a vast array of technological measures that reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions without compromising the performance BMW customers and prospects demand. We do not believe in the superiority of a certain technology, but rather in the combination of measures.

On me and my cars I love cars and I find it easier to get excited about marketing a car, than a detergent or toilet paper. But I am not a car buff who knows every technical detail and whose world consists of nothing but four wheels. When people ask me in interviews: "Do I have to be a car maniac to get a job at BMW?", my reply is always: "No, but if you can't understand why somebody spends £40k for a car, you won't be happy working here." I think Brits are as obsessed with their cars as Germans. Brits are polite and professional, but they turn into tyrannical zealots once they get behind a steering wheel, whereas Germans are tyrannical zealots all the time, who turn into comparatively polite people once they get behind the wheel.

On agencies The great thing about a long-lasting relationship between an agency and a client is both sides become protective and proud about the brand and both feel they are the custodians of the brand values. This double protection is not a bad thing. A good agency-client relationship is one in which both sides try to win each other over with arguments. I wish I could get interested about the buzzword "integration". Of course we need it, but the question of whether integrated communications needs a full-service comms agency that deals with all media opportunities under a single roof doesn't bother me. I see this steering process as the task of a marketing department, not the task of an integrated communications agency.

On Robin Wight Robin is beyond explanation. If there is one person in the advertising industry who deserves the expression "larger than life", it is him. BMW UK owes him a lot and, although he is no longer involved in the daily business, he is still close to the brand. If I maintain 10 per cent of his willingness to question the status quo, his straight thinking, his passion, his energy and dedication when I am his age, I shall be happy. Robin and I have more things in common than people in the industry imagine. The only area where we could not be further apart is our interpretation of "business attire".

On a big idea for the future in motoring If communications agencies want to be masters of brand health, they must widen their horizon to the entire marketing mix, and look closer at the point of sale. The distribution side is often discarded as irrelevant. Who is interested in retail, in dealer marketing? In direct mail? These are not the most glorious bits of the marketing mix, but are undoubtedly the ones with the biggest leverage effect for future brand strength.

On a big idea for the future in any field I do not believe in any big idea. Many smaller ones that are steps in the right direction are fully sufficient for improvements in any part of society, be it politics, the economy, or in companies. As long as we wait for the big idea to come, we overlook the opportunities for some quick wins along the road. Remember, Godot never came!

If you live on Planet Earth, you'll have heard of Russell Davies, the Campaign columnist and expert blogger at russelldavies.com. He talked about this interview on his blog and we invited people to submit questions for Uwe. Here's one of the best, which was posted by Chris:

Given the groundbreaking nature of The Hire film series, why hasn't this been continued? With the changes around the internet as a delivery mechanism, and iTunes as a video distribution channel, you would think this would be even more viable and valuable. Is BMW looking at anything like this for the future? The success of The Hire cannot be repeated. We can only fail if we try to emulate it. The benchmark is so high that the risk to disappoint outweighs the chance to repeat the success.