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Maxi Interview with Mini's USA Chief Jim McDowell


Special Report
By Marty Bernstein

AIADA Contributing Editor

McDowell shows off the new Mini uniform.
Can a guy with a Masters Degree in the esoteric field of public policy analysis and administration from Harvard University sell cars? If that guy happens to be James L. (Jim) McDowell, the answer is not just yes, rather it’s an emphatic – expletive deleted YES!

Since joining BMW in 1993 after eight years with another German auto manufacturer, Porsche, McDowell has made a personal and professional impact on both the automotive and marketing industries.


For 12 years under his watch as vice president of marketing for BMW, the brand became the brand of choice for millions who had a passion for owning or leasing the ultimate driving machine. It represented prestige, performance and pride – all with a capital P.


Along the way, McDowell has collected a metaphoric trophy-case of awards and honors for his marketing and advertising acumen, impact and expertise.  Four years ago, in 2002, he was named the Automotive News “Marketer of the Year,” and he was twice named “Marketer of the Year” by Brandweek magazine. The Advertising Club named him the “2003 Silver Medal Advertising Man of the Year.”  In 2000, BMW was featured as “the ultimate brand” in the brand challenges series of the Wall Street Journal.  He was twice listed in the Advertising Age Marketing 100, and in 2002, was featured in Advertising Age’s “The Age of Ideas” series. Not bad accolades for a guy whose educational CV has an academic look to it. 


Then, last year, in a switch that caught the industry by surprise and to the puzzlement of many, he and Jack Pitney, then general manager of Mini, switched jobs.  Jack took over Jim’s job and became BMW’s vice president of marketing, and Jim moved over to Mini as vice president. 


Both took on a major challenge with the switch – how could they make an impact on respected, dynamic brands without switching the paradigm? The best analogy I can use is the change both men made from BMW’s corporate suit and tie to Mini’s casual sweaters and slacks, and vice versa.  Aside from the sartorial implications, it had to be a new way of thinking, acting and responding to market conditions.


Then, in a surprising scenario, CPB – the award winning advertising agency that launched Mini in America with absolutely phenomenal success – quit the account. So, McDowell had to begin the arduous task of getting a new ad agency, which, contrary to public opinion, is not an easy job.  As a matter of fact, it’s damn difficult, time consuming, somewhat complicated and a tough decision.  In Mini’s quest, the situation was further complicated by the brand’s consumer marketing success. 


As they say in LA, that was the “back story” when I sat with Jim a couple months ago during the New York Auto Show for a wide-ranging conversation. As always, McDowell was personable, funny, articulate and confident in a quiet way.


MB: Did your new agency develop the material used in your stand?

JMcD: No they did not … but some of their work is starting to be seen now, especially in outdoor boards. One in Manhattan features a Mini with the headline, “OPEC, SCHNOPECK,” right above a gas station … which I think is hilarious.


MB: Is outdoor (some call it out-of-home) an important medium for you.

JMcD: It’s a great communications tool. We’ve got a huge outdoor board in which the Mini has a very small part or portion of the board.  The copy says, “A small car gives something back to others.” The majority of the board is for a charitable organization.


MB: The new agency obviously has a certain stylistic edge, right?

JMcD: Without a doubt, they really get Mini; one of the things that greatly impressed us at the beginning was the fact that they understood the branding part of it. They did not recommend gigantic branding changes to what we had done historically. 


MB: The new agency, Butler, Shine, Stern, & Partners is known for its non-traditional approach and its expertise in Internet and viral mediums, how has this translated to dealer communications?

JMcD: The other thing that really impressed us was that they understood the dealer aspect of Mini. They have a dealer creative team that just addresses the retail issues. And they had some really good retail ideas from the beginning. 


MB: Tell me something about your dealers …

JMcD: We have 80 dealers. Now, I can go visit 80 dealers.  This is tangible.  I can get my arms around the entire business. In that way, whenever I hear or learn there’s an opportunity to change something or an issue at any Mini dealer, I may have met the service manager. As a result, I’ll know how they’re set up, where the showroom is and how it works, and can imagine what it is we’re talking through. So, it’s not a mystery to me. 


MB: That’s a very tight group, how many have you visited?

JMcD: I’ve been to 60 of the 80 dealers.  And I am not far from reaching my goal. But the last 20 are the most difficult in terms of their location, so it may take me a little while to visit with them. 


MB: Tell me about your switch from the coat and tie BMW business to the sport shirt and slacks Mini business. What has it meant to you?

JMcD: One of the great joys about working at Mini is our customers. They’re so interesting and so much fun to be around – Uncomplicated people… the kind who wake up in the morning with a smile on their face. From that perspective, anytime a customer calls I have all the time in the world to talk with him or her. I enjoy meeting our customers … my family enjoys meeting them too.  That brings much enjoyment to the new job. 


MB: More personalized than the BMW mother ship, right?  Less structured?

JMcD: I hesitate to make the connection, except that Mini is such a small group that everybody has a role and nobody to second guess that role. Everyone has role and I don’t question what they’ve done or how. The other thing that is so wonderful about the Mini brand is that we are “mistake tolerant”… so long as you have a human side about you. 


MB: Can you explain that?

JMcD: In other words, if you’re nice to people and it takes you two minutes to get the bottle of water before starting the conversation, they understand. And we have the time to do that; to talk with people, and see what’s on their minds … to spend time listening. That’s the part of it I love. 


MB: Does this carryover to your dealers as well?

JMcD: From my experience, very much so. Many of our dealers have hired people because they have excellent people skills. And because they have great people skills, they’re great in building relationships. And that’s actually more important at Mini than trying to convince someone to take delivery of a car they didn’t want.


MB: How does this work on the showroom floor in a selling environment?

JMcD: You want to build the relationship, the confidence.  Maybe they want a new Mini from inventory, yet we show them how they can customize it to make it unique themselves. Maybe they want one build to order and are willing to wait for it. We are willing to work with them however is best for them.


MB: From the new beginning of Mini in America, customization of the vehicle has had a major impact. That’s still important, isn’t it?

JMcD: Yes, but let me explain. There are two forms of customization I’d like to split.  One of which is the amazing array of choices a consumer can make at the time the Mini is specified. What other manufacturer gives you as many choices of, for example, what color your dashboard should be? Do you want red? Yellow? Aluminum? Wood? We give a lot of choices along the way other manufacturers just don’t offer. We give the customer an opportunity to totally customize the interior of their Mini they way they want it. 


MB: And what about the exterior of a Mini?

JMcD: Custom roof designs are just the beginning of the choices a customer has in Mini – it’s extensive.


MB: In visits to Mini dealers, I’ve seen a big assortment of accessories. How important is that to you and the dealers?

JMcD: We have so many interesting accessories, and what’s really cool about it is that the average Mini owner spends $5,000 on either accessories or options for their Mini.  Then, when they come back for the free oil change, we have a highly accessorized car sitting next to their car and many want to upgrade or change what they now have. So, while the oil is being changed, the new part or accessory is added to the order. People do keep adding to their cars. 


MB: Twenty-five percent of car purchase price?

JMcD: I don’t believe anyone sells the breadth and volume of accessories that we do.  The car is not complete until I’ve made it me. We call it “you-ification”… you make it in the way you want in order to reflect your personality. 


MB: Mini customers seem to have developed a passion for their cars. How do you explain this rather unique product attribute?

JMcD: People make these very individual choices at the beginning of their ownership experience. Then, they hear about something new or different, find it on the web or while chatting with other Mini owners to expand their experience and ownership.


MB: That’s unusual in the car business, right?

JMcD: The only thing I can liken it to is the people who are highly involved with their computers… particularly true with Apple computers. Every year, they put in the new operating system, buy more memory, they get a fun new mouse, they change something on the keyboard … it doesn’t seem like they’re ever done. 


MB: So, your buyers aren’t complacent with the status quo are they?

JMcD: You would think people would buy something and say, “That’s it … I’m gonna use it for three years and not change it anymore.” That’s not the way a Mini motorist thinks. They want to constantly make this great car that much better. 


MB: Carlos Ghosn has said the automobile industry has to instill more passion for their cars, much like the passion for cell phones and iPods. Do you agree with him?

JMcD: Be there no doubt. We love getting together with our customers and sharing that passion with them. And it’s an uncomplicated passion because it’s passion from the heart, not the ego. Historically, some people have made automotive choices because of what they think people will think of them afterwards. You buy a Mini because of what you will think when you’re motoring with it. From that perspective, it opens up the distances between people as opposed to closing off people. 


MB: How involved are customers in describing what they want in their cars?

JMcD: The interesting thing is like any car company, we do some market research. But, unlike other car companies, we have 40,000 new purchasers every year. And you know what, we go to enough customer events – we make actually meet 5 to 10 percent of them personally. When you’re sitting at a table or whatever you’re doing with the customer, it’s easy to ask, “Is there anything we’re missing? Is there anything you’d like added to the car? Something you like or something you really don’t like?” It’s an opportunity to re-engineer something you really don’t like. It’s incredible input. 


MB: There’s got to be lots of fun for you to push sales even higher …

JMcD: Ah, it’s the team that does it! The joy for me is that I have such an incredibly good team – they know what they’re doing and don’t need someone to come in and control the situation. So, I’m looking at where I can potentially add value.


MB: How has this affected your relationship with the dealers?

JMcD: So far it’s been getting to know each of our dealers and the people who work at our dealerships. It’s funny, but very soon I will have met at least 50% of the dedicated Mini technicians in the country – isn’t that wild? The reason I don’t know more is they are occasionally out for training the day I come in. 


MB: That builds confidence on their part too; I can imagine a tech saying, “I was talking to the president of Mini recently and yada yada…” This has pay off for them too.

JMcD: Thanks for saying that.  One of the things we were missing was a Mini technician’s uniform. In a lot of shops the technicians were still wearing BMW uniform, and all we had to customize it was a little Mini patch. But at our recent national Mini sales conference in Orlando, one of the big things was new Mini uniforms! 


MB: I feel a pitch coming on. How did you present the new uniforms?

JMcD: Several members of the team went to lunch with everyone in our normal clothing and then a couple of us went backstage and changed into these incredible new Mini uniforms to make the presentation.


MB: Their response?

JMcD: They thought they were great. 


As a marketer, I believe this is the thinking and planning that will help Mini continue the growth that began just four years ago. A recent announcement noted the brand has already sold 120,000 Mini vehicles, substantially above initial projections. 


If the success of Mini isn’t a case history presentation at the business grad school of Harvard, McDowell should complain to his alma mater.