BMW Group's Senior VP Bernd Koerber on Brand Evolution and Electrification

Jason Papp
Founder & Editor-in-chief
July 1, 2024

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BAYERN - "You're only supposed to blow the bladdy doors off!" You just read that in Michael Caine's voice, didn't you? How good is your Michael Caine impression? My Granddad could turn into him at the click of a finger—Northerner one second and an Elephant and Castle cockney the next. That iconic line meant nothing to me as a kid. That was until the new MINI came out in 2001. My parents had this conundrum though. Mum's all-time favourite car was making a comeback, but they'd just bought a brand new Audi A2. In time, my Dad finally caved in, sold the Audi, and purchased a new, silver, MINI Cooper.

In my Mum's words, "It was an instant attraction. I just had to have a silver and black MINI Cooper." And so it happened. Instantly, our house was full of MINI cups, a MINI clock, and an umbrella. Everything. My Dad is one of those that get an incredible deal and then ask for a free pen, too. Even though he worked for a stationery company at the time.

The Italian Job (1969 original) began to make regular appearances on the TV at the weekends whilst we awaited the iconic car's arrival. It's hard to believe that 20 years have gone by since BMW rebooted the Mini. So I sat down with Senior Vice President of MINI, Bernd Koerber to understand what comes next.

He started at MINI in 2003 when he initially joined as Manager of MINI Brand Strategy and Marketing Planning. Bernd briefly left for BMW but came back to the brand in 2010. As of 2023 - Koerber is back with the BMW Group as their SVP of BMW Product Management, Connected Company.

Now, a new MINI was always going to mean a new version of The Italian Job. Tell me about its release in 2003. You'd just joined as a Brand Manager back then. How did this affect sales and strategy?

The Italian Job was the perfect product placement at the ideal time. The film plays out everything MINI stands for – from the go-kart feeling, partner-in-crime, impactful visuals, and most importantly, the sense of community through teamwork.

It was perfectly timed, especially in countries where we had to build brand awareness and presence back then.

What a time to join. So, how about now - what are the objectives for someone who would be a Brand Manager at MINI?

That would be to define the next chapter of the brand. We have now set the groundwork in determining our future product portfolio for the next foreseeable years. This next generation of MINI models will be the 3rd and most significant chapter and change in MINI history since 1959.

Incredible. I can't wait to see this next generation unfold. But what will it take from a brand manager?

They need to understand and authentically communicate based on the understanding of where MINI comes from. Our birth story. The next generation MINIs are exactly about keeping what makes a MINI, MINI, but re-interpreted for the future.

Could you expand on this?

MINI was born from a crisis. The Classic Mini was the outcome of a creative but straightforward solution: to re- shuffle the structure of an ordinary car of the time into a small car with better fuel economy during the Suez Oil Crisis. A resourceful and sustainable (before it was a buzzword) interpretation of product structure and design. Now, that spirit of challenging conventions through optimism, creative solutions, and an underdog spirit is what added to cultivating an iconic status of the brand in our 60 years of heritage.

PAUL SMITH x MINI - Image coutesy of MINI.

Let's talk about MediaMonks. It's about a few years since the BMW Group awarded its pan-European marketing account for BMW and MINI to a dedicated shop, The Engine, led by S4 Capital's media powerhouse.

With The MARCOM Engine, MINI now has a two agency set-up. The MARCOM Engine led by Media.Monks, and our lead creative agency Anomaly.

What possibilities excite you about this partnership?

This enables asset production and performance marketing on an efficient, international scale, whilst on execution level, having a clear brand differentiation between the two brands.

How does this look?

Well, in each market, THE MARCOM Engine will follow a data-driven and customer-oriented marketing approach characterised by personalised 1:1 communications. At the same time, THE MARCOM Engine provides each market with access to a larger, shared universe that can leverage all kinds of synergies across all of Europe and reduces redundant local activities to a minimum.

What will we see going forward?

In the future, product and launch campaigns in Europe will be centrally developed, produced, and delivered for all European markets. We will closely integrate these data-driven campaigns with CRM, Ad Tech and digital media. Essentially, all of Europe will work with a single agency unit.

We know that part of your current role is to identify ways to maximise revenue across MINI. How do you see your agency partners helping with this overarching responsibility?

Delivering customer experience correlates to generating positive revenue. There are many examples across different industries that prove this. Through our two-agency set-up, The MARCOM Engine and Anomaly, our creative agency, we will be able to provide brand-differentiated, personalised marketing through an efficient international set-up.

Pieter Nota told Campaign Magazine, "We are steadily expanding our expertise in the digitalisation of customer, brand, and sales processes." What does this mean to you?

Brands now need to be equipped with two things:

1) Have a complete, end-to-end digital competence and

2) A direct form of contact with the brand.

When you say direct?

Direct does not necessarily mean physical – but in a way that goes one layer deeper – to resonate on a personal level through an authentic brand attitude. That's why we introduced our "BIG LOVE" campaign, encompassing MINI's stance on celebrating optimism, individuality, and unity. A strong stance on our brand's attitude is rooted in our DNA.

What about electrification and the sales process?

In terms of our sales processes, MINI will be a fully electric brand by early 2030. This will change the fundamentals of our business. Going fully electric is not only about the electric drivetrain of a car. We need to rethink and adapt the drivetrain – the fundamentals of our brand and business as well.

Nice illustration. How will this look?

Well, it not only includes "the what" but also the "the how" to maintain our business with a long-term profit stream strategy. Our obligation is to operate responsibly to fit the evolving expectations of our customers, new and old. This will mean foreseeing and implementing new business models and diversifying our services to meet their needs.

Building on that obligation to the customer, how do you see relationships with your retail partners developing in the future? And how do you see the strategy for MINI Dealer Partners evolving in the next 5-10 years?

Dealers are and will continue to be the backbone of our business. We proved this, especially during the past couple of years, as we went through the global pandemic. Without them, we would not have been able to sustain (and even grow in some spectrums) our business and, most importantly, be there for our customers in their respective countries and cities.

As mentioned earlier, with evolving demands of the market and our customers, MINI, as an urban brand, will continue to challenge conventions to offer diversified product offers and services. With that, we see our relationship evolving together, catering to our end customer's needs in the near and far future.

So, would MINI even entertain working with a small, independent agency - if so, what would catch your attention?

Everything we do needs to be newsworthy. From partnerships, creative execution, and whom we work with as well. So, if working with a small independent agency means so, certainly. We are a relatively small team compared to many OEMs out there. We need to be resourceful to a point where we need to utilise everything we can.

Regardless of size, what matters is the spirit of the team. We are a small team here, too, so I am sure we would share some common values with independent agencies. But an independent agency that forces us to challenge conventions through creative solutions, always looking to maximise and get the best out of what we can get.

Taking that into consideration, when forming partnerships with external agencies and sponsors, what are you looking for from them above all else?

Well, basically, a brand that we are happy to be locked in an elevator with. A brand where we both share common elements in our DNA. That underdog spirit of taking challenges and making it an opportunity - optimism, community, like a friend - all of that.

What is creatively exciting for you and the MINI brand at the moment? And looking back, what have been your standout MINI communications over the last 20 years?

I would say our BIG LOVE communication. It was a creative execution of our brand attitude, a great project during my first years being back with the MINI brand since 2010.

What more can you do to excite a new generation of car enthusiasts and attract them to the MINI Brand?

Creative use of space has always been at the core of MINI since its origin. The MINI Vision Urbanaut represents how we could responsibly bring our inherent MINI characteristics to play a unique role in the future of urban mobility.

It's very cool. To a traditionalist MINI owner like my Mum, what would you say about the increased size?

The MINI Vision Urbanaut carries many characteristics of the MINI DNA. The Vision Urbanaut is our take on creative use of space as an urban brand. By extending the personal space over to the car, creating an urban oasis, it is our take on how MINI's creative use of space could be an answer to the needs of future cities and lifestyles.

I like that. And it fits in with MINI's journey to full electrification.

Yes. The Vision Urbanaut is designed to be autonomous and electric, emphasising passenger comfort and convenience. The exterior and interior of the vehicle change to reflect the MINI moment at hand and can be diversified as Chill, Wanderlust and Vibe, depending on your mood and journey. In typical MINI fashion, there is that amalgamation of analogue touches with a digital connection.

This article was updated in October 2023.

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Jason Papp
Founder & Editor-in-chief