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Mini’s ambitious new marketing strategy

Cars have been sold the same way for decades. It's time for a grand experiment.

Cars have been sold the same way for decades. It’s time for a grand experiment

Simon Young

Marketing

One of the world’s smallest cars is making a big change in the way cars are sold—and it’s starting here in New Zealand.

Mini is doing away with all but two of its car dealerships: one in Christchurch, and one in Ponsonby. But the Ponsonby dealership is part of an ambitious new plan to reinvent how cars are bought and sold.

There are four prongs to the new strategy: pop-up retail (the Ponsonby ‘Mini Garage’), a call centre (or as Mini refers to it, an ‘interaction centre’), mobile salespeople, and online sales.

It’s a bold move, but one that’s perfectly in keeping with Mini’s quirky branding. Mark Gilbert, managing director of BMW Group New Zealand (Mini’s parent company), says the moves were a practical response to worldwide trends, both in the car industry and beyond.

“There are a lot of discussions and reports about the future of automobile retail,” says Gilbert, “but no one’s actually doing anything. We saw an opportunity to try something new when we relaunched Mini.”

One of those trends is perhaps obvious to many: people don’t like the car-buying process. They’re also looking for more flexibility. For instance, many young urban sophisticates—Mini’s target market—want the convenience of a car without the cost of ownership. Gilbert cites the growth of services like Zipcar, a car rental service that charges by the hour.

While Mini’s not about to start a car rental business—yet—Gilbert uses the Zipcar example to highlight the flexibility that people are after. And he’s right. We call it Generation C.

If you’re an avid Idealog reader, you’ll know what we’re talking about: Generation C is the group of people who are used to organising their own lives digitally. The C stands for control, and the thinking is that if I can custom-make my music playlist, I want to custom-make everything.

That’s exactly what Mini is offering with its online sales model. People will be able to custom-make their own Mini and press ‘order’.

But really? Online sales for a brand new car? Sure, people may have bought a $5,000 Toyota from Trade Me, sight unseen, but this is a different kettle of fish.

Aspects of the new strategy may go awry. “You could ignore changes in the way people buy and sell, and say it’s not going to happen, or you could go play in that space and see what might be”

Gilbert is aware that some aspects of the new strategy may go awry. “We’re very much not clear on the outcomes of some of these channels,” he admits, “but we will know once we’ve trialled them.” It’s a rarity, particularly from a large corporate: an admission of uncertainty. But that admission is delivered with confidence, in a way that says the company will learn and grow from the experiment.

That attitude, and the small market size, makes New Zealand an ideal test-bed for Mini. About 250–350 Minis per year are sold in New Zealand. If it all goes pear-shaped, it’ll be barely a blip on Mini’s worldwide market share.

Still, Gilbert hints that it may have taken some persuasion to get support for the plan from head office, but that “our friends in Munich” are right behind it now. “You could ignore changes in the way people buy and sell, and say it’s not going to happen, or you could go play in that space and see what might be.”

Mini’s big move plays into some global trends. Unlike previous generations that depended on your date of birth, Gen C is an attitude. For that reason, it’s a growing generation. That means more people who want maximum control. Mini is doing this by providing four different ways that people can access Mini.

Personal branding is another area where Mini is breaking new ground. The Mini mobile salespeople all have their own Facebook pages, and they’re being encouraged to build their own community around themselves. It means people will have an interaction with the brand before and after the sale—but the trick question is, which brand? Mini, or the individual salesperson? The answer: both. In a world where social media makes every individual a potential media mogul, it’s a question many companies will have to answer. Kudos to Mini for facing it head-on.

Mini’s also embracing corporate social responsibility, not in the traditional give-money-to-charity sense, but by being part of the local community. Gilbert says they’ve chosen Ponsonby specifically, and they look forward to being a major supporter of local community events. “We’re not just spending our communications budget on glossy brochures.”

Finally, Mini has embraced impermanence and permanence in the right areas. Branding in the past used to be about forever, but it’s a fast-changing world and by using pop-up retail Mini is acknowledging that rapid pace of change. What is permanent is the relationships Mini hopes to build with buyers, both individually and as a community. The 12 to 15 month timeframe gives a sense of mystery and anticipation about what’s next, which is just what Mini wants.

So is New Zealand the best place to trial new things? If you’re Mini, it is. The ingredients for this experiment are small market size, a brand that wants to lead and innovate, and—most of all—courage to follow your curiosity.