Is Mini moving out of its niche? How to avoid the automotive equivalent of a comb-over.

An article in the April 2nd edition of the New York Times was headlined: “Despite Expansion, Mini Says It’s Still a Niche” and confirmed something that had occurred to me at the New York Auto Show.

In New York last week I saw the new Mini crossover, the Countryman, for the first time in person.  All the Mini design cues are present in the Countryman and I think you’d be hard pressed to say that it wasn’t part of the Mini family.  But I was struck by how “big” it seemed, it didn’t seem small and taut the way all the other models do.  Part of the difference was that the Countryman’s ground clearance is higher, so its stance is really quite different than the other Minis. 150w, 770w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" />

This got me thinking, at what point does a marque go too far and begin to lose its essential character?  Has Mini gone too far with the Countryman?

I suspect this is a little like losing your hair.  Little by little your hair recedes, almost imperceptibly, you make little adjustments as you go, thinking no one will notice, until one day you end up with comb-over and people are snickering behind your back. Little by little automotive brands seem to lose their way.

I suppose this is the ultimate judgment call in the automotive branding business.  All manufacturers feel the relentless pressure to grow their business and increase volume.  One way to do that is to create products that enable you to enter new segments.  Sometimes companies get this right and other times not.

Porsche, the archetypal sports car company, introduces the Cayenne to howls of protest from the “purists,” sells a ton of them and for a number of years could claim to be the most profitable manufacturer in the world.  Clearly a good business decision and it seems not to have diminished the brand.  One of the reasons that I think the Cayenne did not hurt the Porsche brand is because at the time it was introduced, no one was making a high performance SUV.  With the Cayenne, Porsche filled an unmet need…some folks wanted an SUV that offered real performance creds and Porsche led the industry from its traditional strength. 150w, 300w, 1220w" sizes="(max-width: 450px) 100vw, 450px" />

I think the Panamera will be a different story.  I don’t think the world is waiting for a Porsche 4-door sedan.  There are already terrific high performance sedans,  Audi RS6 & S8, Mercedes-Benz AMG models, BMW’s M5 & Alpina B7.  Porsche is following a well-worn path with the Panamera and it will be just another performance sedan.

VW and its much-maligned Routan is a good example of a product that stretched a brand the wrong way.  VW wanted to add a people mover to its line-up.  The wonderful VW Microbus Concept proved too expensive to produce so VW struck a deal with Chrysler and the Routan is the result.  A perfectly serviceable vehicle I’m sure, but very little VW character: 150w, 672w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" />Had VW been able to produce the Microbus it would have been more distinctive and reflective of the Volkswagen brand.  Instead the Routan competes with every other plain vanilla Japanese entrant and is struggling.

BMW, inarguably the best-defined brand in the automobile business has just announced that it will develop a front wheel drive platform and market front wheel drive cars.  Again, howls of protest from the enthusiast circles that rightly point out that the Ultimate Driving Machine has been based on several principles not the least of which was rear wheel driven handling and perfect 50/50 weight distribution front to back.  But there are good reasons to have a FWD in your product portfolio, particularly when you need to develop smaller more fuel-efficient models to meet CAFE standards.

Here’s the tough thing about having a well-developed brand, you can’t be all things to all people.  Some things fit and others don’t. When you do things that conflict with your brand’s core values or principles it diminishes your brand.

Is the Mini Countryman going to weaken the Mini brand?  Probably not, but what about the next variant?

Porsche Cayenne OK?  What about Panamera?  Feels like the Porsche brand doesn’t have that much elasticity.

Volkswagen Routan?  VW’s stated company goal is to become more “mainstream”  and increase US volumes dramatically. I guess Routan is mainstream, but I’m not sure that “mainstream” and strong brand go together.  It will be fascinating to see the new sedan built in the Chattanooga factory, will it still have essential VW character or will it be “mainstream?”

BMW and front wheel drive?  Maybe most people won’t know or care that the car is front wheel drive, but the legions of people who bought into BMW’s rear wheel drive rationale will be wondering what it means for the Ultimate Driving Machine.

It seems like growth is the enemy of automotive brands.  Little by little, the never-ending pursuit of volume forces companies into segments and compromises that make their brands less distinct, less clear.  Without question you can sell a few more cars, but is it worth it?  Would you be better off creating a new brand?  It’s a good question to ask as you consider each new segment and new product. If you take the question seriously and really consider the strength of the brand an important consideration then you can avoid becoming a comb-over brand.  A brand that has rationale for what’s doing…but it isn’t fooling anybody.

Please comment, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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3 Responses to “Is Mini moving out of its niche? How to avoid the automotive equivalent of a comb-over.”

  1. Elcin says:

    The second piutcre is from the Fisker parking lot. Do you really think they all bought Karmas? Please Game probably got the a free lease for all the tweets he made about Fisker.

  2. Finding good information from blogs is not always easy, but you have done a great job here, interesting title ( Is Mini moving out of its niche? How to avoid the automotive equivalent of a comb-over. « McNaughton Automotive Perspectives ) too, cool.

  3. Cameron says:

    Thanks for your comment. Right now Hyundai is a quality/value brand. If they continue to price and position Genesis and Equus from that perspective they will do reasonably well. If they attempt to make Genesis, Equus and Hyundai a tier one luxury brand, they will have committed the comb-over. Toyota avoided this by creating the Lexus brand.

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