Autocar has a pretty interesting interview with MINI UK director Chris Brownridge detailing MINI’s struggles and successes over the years. The key take away is that the brand has matured in its offerings and is set up well for success with current sales at record levels. While some in the US would disagree (where sales have been down for several years consequently) there’s little question that MINI aid killing it globally.
In 2001 this type of brand maturity seemed very far away:
“In those days  there was no premium small car, and the Mini was arguably the first premium car with high differentiation,” he says. “Not only did we have product substance, but we also had quite an invigorating marketing approach. We were probably one of the first brands with dry wit in our advertising. The product was different, the brand positioning was very different and the car was a huge success.”
Next up came the brand expansion that saw the Convertible, Clubman, Countryman, Roadster, Coupé and Paceman in that order.
“Mini was building a tremendous following not just domestically but also globally,” continues Brownridge. “It was becoming a serious car brand.”
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t issues. According to Brownridge (who has a decidedly UK bent to his opinions) marketing didn’t pay off the line-up as well as it should have.
“I think there was a kind of wilderness period where the brand moved from being highly differentiated with a little bit of wit to perhaps a more arty brand,” he says. “Our advertising was too frivolous for some.” As Brownridge points out, such an approach was quite the opposite of the well-engineered, high-quality reality beneath the stripes and the humour. “The result was customers that felt a great affinity with the brand, but we’d also made ourselves a brand that was being dismissed by some customer groups. It was a cul-de-sac and something we needed to resolve.”
Marketing issues (or not) aside, there were also quality issues. While the R56 generation was decidedly better put together than the first generation of new MINIs, many models of engine found in these cars (the Prince) have proven to be less reliable over the years. The warranty payouts and loss of goodwill from many longtime owners over serious engine issues (and failures) was surely quantified by BMW as a loss to both the bottom line and to the brand perception.
On top of that there’s a perception inside MINI that the growth was too dramatic:
“We had seven bodystyles, all in the small car segment,” says Brownridge. “While we were successful in the UK and globally, we were winning customers but also losing customers. Once they had a car their circumstances often changed, and even the Countryman wasn’t of sufficient size for them to stay with the brand. We had a customer base that was quite transient, but we also had a core base of fans.”
A key part of BMW’s response as been to re-imagine the MINI brand beginning in 2015. The rollout has been slow (or careful as BMW would say) with the new logo not even on the cars yet. But the repositioning of the brand has begun in ernest.
“We started the product offensive with the current-generation hatch, which lifted the bar in terms of substance. It’s still highly differentiated, still has great personality and is still true to the Mini genes. The next step was the five-door, which was a huge boost in terms of conquesting customers who didn’t need to settle for an ordinary car in the small car segment. We also wanted to enter the C-segment.”
Interestingly MINI’s research indicates that customers like what’s been done.
“We’re also bringing new customers to the brand, because historically it was easier to dismiss us,” says Brownridge.
“We now position ourselves as more credible, perhaps more grown-up but still individual and full of personality. We’re seeing customers coming from premium and non-premium brands.”
A final, vital ambition is to get buyers to understand that Mini isn’t just one car, despite the previous seven varieties. “We’re five cars,” says Brownridge. “Of course people know the Mini Cooper, but the awareness of the Mini Countryman and Mini Clubman is really quite low. So the second thrust of our relaunch was to really drive the awareness of those products. We needed people to reappraise the brand and reappraise the products.”
Further MINI sees the future particularly bright:
“There’s a growing trend towards urbanisation and people moving into cities. What we are moving towards is really innovating in that arena,” he says. Mini could explore the idea of shared-usage cars that are personalised via some form of biometric recognition.
“It’s your car but it’s not your car,” Brownridge says. “You pick your appearance and it’s personalised to you in terms of power, spec and colour. When you arrive in Spain, for example, another Mini comes up to you and becomes the same car. The possibilities are fascinating, and they fit hand in glove with the brand.”
“The Mini originally came about as a solution to a problem, so there’s a real parallel here. What role does the brand play in maybe solving some of the challenges of suburban city life? I think we’re a brand that has relevancy in urban environments, in innovation and the use of space.”
There’s a ton of great insights packed away in the interview so it’s all well worth a read.