Currently reading: Insight: how BMW is reinventing its design and going upmarket
The German firm is aiming to reach a fresh audience with revamped styling and a new luxury line

BMW is reinventing its design philosophy and shifting upmarket with new, distinctly flavoured luxury models. Richard Bremner investigates Bayerische Motoren Werke.

The spelling out of the BMW name in full, and the use of a black and silver roundel (rather than the famous blue and white propeller logo), are among the more subtle indicators of a significant change of direction for the Munich-based manufacturer. 

A new design language is emerging for both the interiors and exteriors of its cars. The brand is going to stretch itself further upmarket. And it’s presenting itself in new ways. That’s for the mainstream BMWs, for the electrified i-brand cars and for the newly designated luxury models, whose print, TV and online presentation will be accompanied by that BMW name in full, and the black and silver badge. 

At the recent Frankfurt motor show, where this new signage could be seen above a display of special 7 Series saloons (one yacht-inspired exploratory version of which has wooden floor mats...), BMW also rolled out its handsome 8 Series concept, the rather less elegant X7 show car and an electric i Vision Dynamics saloon with a twin kidney grille of rather startling proportions. 

Indeed, the grilles of all three concepts vary substantially in shape, texture, proportion and form, and are all further clues to BMW’s change of tack. Which is a lot more substantial even than the reshaping and recolouring of BMW’s most famous visual signatures, as the company’s product management and design chiefs explain. 

“There are a couple of things that happened in parallel in the BMW Group,” says BMW Group design boss Adrian van Hooydonk, who explains the genesis of this shift. 

Back to top

“First, expanding at the top end of our range is something that we’ve been wanting to do for a while. We believe that there’s room to do so – actually our customers are asking for more products at the top end – and almost at the same time as we were plotting new cars like the 8 Series and the X7, we realised that when we came to 2018, we would hit a wave of new products, including the Z4 and a couple of other cars. 

“In fact, six or seven new BMWs will be rolled out in the next year-and-a-half or so. I’ve been with this company a while and we’ve done a lot of product in the past, but I would say that we’ve never done so many new cars for one particular brand in such a short period of time.” 

With such a rich array of new models under development, the company reckoned that this was “an opportunity, because if you can roll six cars in one-and-a-half years, you can pretty much transform the brand,” says van Hooydonk. “We also felt that it was the right time because we felt quite happy with the design up until now. But you have to keep moving. You don’t want to become a sitting duck.” 

Not allowing BMW to become a sitting duck is also a motivation for BMW’s product management and brand chief Hildegard Wortmann. “I think it’s important when you have such a strong brand that you keep it fresh all the time, that you keep it original, that you keep it on the edge,” she says. To that end, Wortmann, a brand expert with experience at both Unilever and Calvin Klein before she joined BMW in 1998, has overseen a three-pronged reorientation of the way BMW presents itself to the world. And with her contribution to the product development process, she has been involved with the substance of the new cars too. 

Back to top

Those three prongs are the mainstream BMWs, the i-brand cars and the newly designated luxury Bayerische Motoren Werke models. 

BMW enthusiasts might notice that people now appear in some of the company’s ads, and that the tone of its messaging, which cuts across social media as well, alters according to the model. Wortmann cites “the latest [advertising] campaign on the 1 Series – it’s completely digital, dealing with the topic of drones, doing competitions and installations with drones. This freshening up is keeping the brand up to date, making it modern. The challenge is to do different interpretations with each and every car, depending on the different segments, and the different target audiences.”

With the i models, she adds, “you’ll see a much fresher approach with more digital, more multimedia and more emotion. It’s a strong statement of attitude.” BMW’s luxury models – the existing 7 Series, and the forthcoming X7 and 8 Series Coupé – will be represented using a strategy borrowed from the fashion world, “by going back to our roots and using the full name, like Alexander McQueen”, says Wortmann. The McQueen fashion house and others spell the brand’s name out for its high-end lines, and use initials for the more affordable products.

The visual character of the cars themselves will change too, says van Hooydonk, for “this new chapter in our form language. Pretty quickly, we came to the conclusion that it should be something that is cleaner, where we are trying to achieve a lot with fewer elements, and fewer lines. 

Back to top

“But the lines that we do have should be crisper, sharper and more precise. We believe that this will fit very well with these new top-end products. When you reduce the form language, the details matter more. In the luxury segment, where often more is more, we are offering luxury in a very modern way.” 

The new design language isn’t only about simplifying and refining shapes. BMW is keen to develop more individual identities within its range, as those striking new grilles indicate. “In the next vehicle generation, we want to separate each and every model. They have very different types of competitors that could be from totally different brands. The industry has changed in that sense,” says van Hooydonk. 

“For the luxury cars, it is always a good idea to separate them from the next car up – that’s something that we will do. If you look at the 8 Series, I believe it deserves that name. Like the previous 8 Series, it’s a car that’s not a saloon-derived coupé.” 

With a new design language under development and that wave of new models for 2018, van Hooydonk and the marketing team reckoned that BMW should also reassess its corporate identity. That process was led by Wortmann, who says: “You saw the first outing at the Frankfurt notor show with the fully written ‘Bayerische Motoren Werke’ in the black and white logo, at least in print. We feel that it’s more elegant and sophisticated. It fits with what we are trying to do with the form language.” 

Back to top

As might be expected, the design team has adopted a new interior approach too, “for the same reasons – there too we could clean up”, says van Hooydonk. “Cars will become more intelligent and that’s beginning to happen now. It means you have to tell the car less what it needs to do and what you want from it. So you will need fewer buttons. 

“The buttons that we do still have are neatly grouped in a couple of islands in the centre console or in the dashboard in the Z4, 8 Series and X7 concept cars. The cockpits are going to go towards digital and always include a head-up display, and the way you operate the vehicle will then become a mix between touch, some hard keys and voice control.” 

Back to top

That’s for the near-to-medium term, during which “the intelligence of vehicles will grow”, says van Hooydonk. “Before long, cars will be self-learning and, ultimately, will be able to drive autonomously. That opens up other possibilities because you can sit people in different ways in the car. We can expect to see a lot more development in the interior of cars in the next couple of years. With these concept cars, we’re also showing with the interior that when you reduce, it actually can be more luxurious and there is more space for exclusive materials.” 

In 2018, then, we can expect this visual revolution to take off with some force. As Wortmann and van Hooydonk explain, these changes have been fired by both design and marketing. “If it pulls the brand a little bit further upmarket, that’s good,” reckons van Hooydonk. 

Given the scope of this shift for BMW, the results could generate usefully more than that too. 

Related stories: 

BMW 7 Series review 

BMW 6 Series review 

BMW 5 Series review 

Join the debate

Add a comment…
Jimbbobw1977 23 October 2017

Mercedes Benz independent? It

Mercedes Benz independent? It’s not really these days to be honest - Being under the Daimler unbrella AG umbrella, and partnered with the Renault-Nissan alliance.

Remember the links this creates - A Mercedes Benz powered by an engine also used in a Renault Van or Eastern European roamanian car company. 

kboothby 30 October 2018

and the latest A Class..

..has a Renault-Nissan chassis and engine?

The X-class is a Navara with a "bolt-on" touch screen.  

Our sales force run "premium" beemers & Mercs but I see little quality differential between them and the Skodas/Citroens/Nissans our service dept runs especially in terms of reliability

clbmw 22 October 2017

So the brand that was famous

So the brand that was famous for "would you like a steering wheel with that?" is making more luxurious cars.

How about a quick reflection on your direction of travel BMW? You're scrapping the baby 6 cyclinder cars next gen. Dropping the completely unique RWD M140i. Moving everything small to UKL FWD. Failed to release any other versions of the i8 despite repeated calls for more models including an M version (and wonder why despite being stunning it hasn't sold anywhere near as predicted), failed to address the Merc GT or Audi R8 or Porsches from Boxster to 911. Failed to allow any kind of high performance Tourer be sold in the UK. Failed to improve electric steering to anywhere near as good as e90 gen hydraulic. Losing the edge on handling in the segments they target.

I love my BMWs and always have, but address any of the above before worrying about "luxury"

chandrew 21 October 2017

They're anonymous, and that is a good thing

The great thing in Europe, at least from my perspective, is that BMWs (like the other German so-called 'premium' manufacturers are so common that nobody turns an eye)

I drive a high-spec 6 cylinder 3 series toruing and I like the fact it looks (at least on the outside) similar to the cars the local electricity company use for their service engineers. Being anonymous is good.

Cars like the 7 series (and S class or A8) seem to be used extensively for airport or hotel shuttle cars. Again, not necessarily a bad thing but it seems that the European wealthy are more likely to go for a high-spec 5 series than a 7. If you want luxury you go for a proper luxury brand. If you want to blend-in get a BMW.

As Apple have shown, there is good money to be made selling products with design and potentially a little bit better (or at least not competing at the bottom of the category) to the masses. Problem is company executives always want to be a luxury brand for ego-reasons. Shareholders probably wish they stuck to what they're good at.