Sex, Lies and the Electric Car: The BMWi

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By Carol Pierson Holding

BMW, a leader in CSR among automakers, has upped the marketing ante for hybrid/electric cars by associating its new electric car with internet connectivity (or is that innovation?), thanks to it’s name, the BMWi.

“i”? Sure, thanks to Apple’s ubiquitous advertising campaigns, “i” is as well known as an indicator for many things: internet, innovation, imagination (the company has been mum on what it really stands for)

In any case, you have to wonder why BMW chose this consumer shorthand most often associated with Apple over one that might signal environmentalism. Why not “e” for “electric car?” Could BMW be doing what so many have failed to do—move the overall positioning of energy efficiency towards something sexier and more appealing? At least when it comes to cars? Green appeal comes and goes. For many efforts, green positioning has given way to saving money — remember Energy Star’s transition in the 1990s? And more recently, the Prius’ push beyond celebrity environmentalists to mass market, cost-conscious consumers? But saving gas only goes so far, especially when gas is cheap.

KC Golden, the visionary behind the Seattle-based Climate Solutions,  predicted an i-car evolution.  KC grew up in Los Angeles, the apex of the automobile worship.  He witnessed what having a cool car –a lot of horsepower under the hood —could do when it came to getting the girl. That link between horsepower and sex is permanently fused in youthful minds. And it never really goes away.

Today, KC lives in Seattle, where the major source of carbon emissions, about 40%, is from cars. To lower emissions, we must either get people to ride public transportation, which in the West is extremely tough, or more practically, get them to drive low-emission cars. What KC sees as the primary challenge is breaking our insistent connection, even in politically correct Seattle, between sex appeal and horsepower.

And what better voice to change attitudes about cars than the car companies themselves, starting just where you’d expect it to start, with Volkswagen—the first small car brand. KC sent me this typically counter-intuitive Volkswagen ad, which mocks drivers who still believe that horsepower enhances ego. Its tag line is “lowest ego emissions:” Take a look here:

I’ll bet this commercial is not all that funny to BMW drivers. It appeals to those whose ego is wrapped around environmentalism, the very group KC wants to grow. I’m not saying that KC is wrong about green being sexy one day. In fact, even BMW thought the time had come in its first and second tries at an electric car. First was the MiniE, an electric MiniCooper. Launched in China, it was positioned as the first of its MegaCityVehicle line— a luxury version of Indian car-maker Tata’s Nano. Then the company tried the ActiveE, a sedan that was “bringing sustainable electric mobility on the road” as their ActiveE spokeperson, a female sustainability consultant intoned on their website. The ActiveE does not look “muscular;” its spokesperson is not sexy.

But with BMW’s third try, the BMWi, I think BMW has found its answer. Even though the tag line for the BMWi is “Born Electric,” the message is about performance first. BMWi uses battery power not only to cut emissions, but also to boost performance. Sure, the women in the BMWi web video are good-looking, but not blatantly sexy. And someday, maybe just the energy savings will be enough.

With the BMWi, BMW returns to its roots. It’s a smart strategy and may take us right where we want to go. As smart branders know, a slow transition works best with consumers. German luxury carmakers promoting behavioral modification in service of sustainability? Now that’s brand evolution.

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.

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2 responses

  1. Interesting, but there are some flaws to the article.
    The biggest being that the newly announced i line isn’t BMW’s “third try” as written, it’s actually it’s first.

    The i line is the formal name for the vehicles that are conceived under the Project i umbrella, and both the MINI-E and ActiveE come from project i. These are prototype, test vehicles so there was really no reason to market or advertise them(except to get people to join the test program and lease on for a year)
    These two cars were never meant for production or sale and were very low production (612 for MINI-E and about 1,000 for ActiveE)
    The i3 which is the first car that will make it to showrooms from project i, will undoubtedly be marketed by sexy, beautiful women, and intelligent, masculine looking professional men when the marketing blitz begins sometime in late 2012.

    Only then will we get to see how BMW want’s to market the i cars, everything up to then is simply trying to get a small group of “guinea pigs” to do beta testing so the marketing would naturally be completely different.

    BTW, I’m one of the guinea pigs, driving MINI-E #250 in New Jersey. It’s fast, fun and yes, a sexy ride.

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