BMW‘s new MINI was launched with great fanfare at the Paris auto show in October. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Under Rover, the car would have been launched at Birmingham, but the divorce of Rover and BMW changed everything. It’s BMW’s project now, the sole remnant of its Rover exit. How will the car be marketed globally? How does it relate to its predecessor? How many will be built annually? just-auto secured an exclusive interview with new Mini brand director, Wolfgang Vollath. Now that a few months have passed and the dust has settled, how do you feel generally about the summer’s sale of Rover by BMW? In particular, has new Mini brand policy been altered or modified in any way as a result?

WV: For me it is sad that I am no longer in charge of MG Brand Management in addition to the task I love – Mini.

The Mini Policy has altered in so far that Mini has grown much more important in the BMW Group strategy than it had been before. This is apparent in the additional number of engineers working on Mini, as well as the tripling of sales and marketing staff around the world. In Paris, BMW AG Chairman Joachim Milberg said that the new Mini image should stand for ‘excitement, emotion, youth and freshness’. How are you planning to achieve this and is there any conflict with making the brand a premium brand?

WV: Mini, like in the past, is a wonderfully fun car to drive. None of us on the project have ever driven a more exciting and agile front wheel drive car. It is great to corner, just like Mini has always been. The marketing approach only mirrors the capabilities of the car. Today’s modern car buyers are very much interested in exactly the values the Mini brand has stood for and stands for. Today’s Mini also has taken the technical leap that was necessary after 41 years and 41 days. How important is the UK market to your plans, bearing in mind that it is the UK where the memories of the old Mini will be strongest?

WV: UK is the key market, there is no doubt about that. As Mini is an authentic brand, there are UK designers and engineers on the project. The Mini will be built at the BMW Group plant in Oxford. This is one of the birthplaces of Mini. So we have come full circle. The marketing in the UK is fully in UK hands. All in all we believe that Mini will be a success in the UK due to the fact that Mini is British and just about everyone working on it is British as well. The new Mini cannot possibly trade on the same values as the old one, but it is clearly a descendant. How delicate is the heritage question surrounding the old Mini – a very much more basic form of transportation than new Mini – in new Mini’s marketing and advertising?

WV: There is no good future without a good upbringing and a pedigree. I am very proud to be associated with Mini. It is one of the motoring icons not just in the UK but around the world. Just like children of good families look to the future so do we. One thing is clear though: Mini continues to have the original DNA. In our marketing and advertising we will be anything but BMW. There are worlds of differences that will become apparent within the next few weeks.

For example, showrooms will have a completely different look. Even the identity outside the dealerships will be Mini. All advertising will be much more ‘human’ and outgoing than would be expected from BMW. Overall, Mini fits perfectly into modern British and international life. How do you see market positioning for new Mini? Who are the main target customer groups in Europe and how does that relate to planned pricing?

WV: Naturally we are aiming for young and modern thinking customers while not forgetting the traditional Mini fans and friends. Over the last two decades or so Mini has no longer been cheap transport. It has become an icon for those who love it. Mini will continue down that same road, while giving great value for money. There will be no dissatisfied customers because of a lack of safety or reliability. The BMW Group wants to set standards in the segment of small cars with Mini, just like the original Mini did so many decades ago. New Mini is certainly being positioned further upmarket than its predecessor. BMW’s approach appears to centre on giving the car a high quality feel with the interior in particular, receiving a lot of attention. Pricing could be an issue if volume is being constrained at around 100,000 units per annum. What do you say to critics who say that the margin per car will be too low unless BMW prices high – and that is self-defeating on what is still perceived as a small car?

WV: The price step from the old Mini to the current car will not be as great as some fear. Within a few years it will be apparent that the entry price is no more than a few percent higher than the last top of the line old Minis. Dealers will have a fair margin adequate for the segment this car competes in. The plant is very flexible to build more or less than 100,000 units and we have various engine variants coming. All in all the car is great, the price is right, the dealers have good business cases – so there are no worries. You are planning to sell new Mini in the US through BMW dealers, although it is reported that not all dealers will necessarily qualify for new Mini sales. What do you see as the main challenges in selling a niche model like the new Mini in the US marketplace?

WV: Not all BMW dealers will get the Mini around the world. The number that will depends on the projected market demand. A balance has to be struck between geographical coverage and a good business case for our partners. In the US Mini has the chance to set a new trend the: ‘anti-SUV’. Currently many small cars are coming to the US. Mini, due to its design and great handling, has many opportunities to be a success in the US. How do you view the Japanese market for the new Mini? The old Mini was phenomenally successful there.

WV: The Mini will follow in its footsteps. Our research shows that Mini will be a success. How will new Mini relate to the ex-Rover developed small car R30 (25/45 replacement) model that BMW has the rights to? How would a ‘2 Series’ be differentiated from new Mini?

WV: Mini (R50) has always been a completely different platform than R30 or the new small BMW. There are not even many common parts. The small BMW will be rear wheel driven. R30 was to be a much bigger, more rational and less ‘fun-handling’ car. Can you give any indication of when other model variants based on the new Mini platform and sitting inside the Mini family brand will be available? How far will this go? There has been talk of an MPV-like version, for example.

WV: Sorry no, but engineering is working on a few very interesting projects that fit the Mini brand very well. At the old Mini’s 40th Birthday Party in 1999, some 70,000 people attended celebrations at Silverstone in England. Why do you think the old Mini attracted such a following and do you think it is possible for the new Mini to become a ‘character car’ in a similar way? Or are those days over?

WV: Those days are far from over. I personally enjoyed Silverstone very much. It was sponsored though our marketing budget. In the future, Mini drivers will still love their car, because it is unique. Just put a few other small cars next to Mini and it will become obvious why that is so. Helmut Panke, BMW board member for finance and sales, recently said that the value of parts and labour in sterling is only about 40% of the total value of the new Mini. That suggests that the policy of getting as much continental sourcing as possible on the car has been quite successful. But the UK is a relatively expensive manufacturing location and the BMW experience with Rover was not a positive one. How long term is BMW’s commitment to making the new Mini in the UK?

WV: If the GBP were not so expensive there would be no necessity to source outside the UK. From a brand point of view we would rather have 100% UK content. On the other hand finance insists that we are in this to make money, so sadly we are forced to get some non-UK content into the car to avoid high prices. If the Pound were lower that would not happen. As an authentic brand the home of Mini is in Oxford – that commitment stands. A related question now. In branding terms, how important is the car’s ‘Englishness’? After all, it’s built by a German car company and has Brazilian-made engines amongst a large number of parts imported from the European continent.

WV: Currently in all industries there is international sourcing. Many very expensive fashion brands are made in Asia. As I stated before it is only a question of exchange rates. We want to make the Mini as British as possible. Mini is an independent brand and the fact that BMW puts a lot of money into it is wonderful. We have freedom in engineering, design, sales and marketing that allow us to rebuild Mini and that is what we are all doing. What excites you, as brand director, about the new Mini? How emotional is this car for you personally?

WV: Mini is the most emotional job I ever had. My daughter was born on the 40th birthday of Mini. At home she is our Mini and the car is our baby in the office.

The original Rover Mini
The new BMW Mini – set to go on sale next year