Brand Perception – BMW.

I used to drive a BMW. I used the past tense deliberately. I’ve driven loads of them. Your archetypal ‘brand evangelist’, that was me. That’s all changed.

A BMW 3 Series to start with, then a BMW 5 Series, then a 7 Series briefly, then a 6 Series, then I bought a 3 Series Touring for my wife, and I bought myself a BMW 330d Sport. I’ve driven other cars, but I think it’s reasonable to say I was a BMW fan.

I liked my 330d so much, I’ve been driving it for the last 5 years. It’s covered 75 thousand almost trouble-free miles, but it was just time to change it. So I walked in to a BWM showroom a couple of months ago and tried to buy a new one. Easier said than done. Try as I might to part with several tens of thousands of pounds, I just couldn’t get the salesman to realise that I was ready to pay the cash equivalent of a small neighbourhood in certain parts of Manchester. He just wanted to make me have a test drive in something I had no need of testing. So I left.

That, in and of itself, is no big deal. I still had my trusty 330 and figured I would revisit the new BMW purchase when the opportunity or fancy took me, whichever came first. But then the ‘tapakata, pakata, pakata’ noise started. Tapakata was swiftly accompanied by black smoke, and blue smoke, and I believe there may also have been some green and yellow smoke although it was difficult to tell with the cabin full of multicoloured smoke and the increasingly distracting noise of metal grinding on metal which had the same jarring effect as the guy on Jaws scraping his fingernails down the blackboard in the ‘Let’s close the beach before everyone dies’ scene.

The car limped into the BMW Service Centre and let out a small and, to my ear, quite final squeak.

I turned off the ignition and sat in the car park hissing and creaking and clicking gently. The car that is, not me.

The prognosis was a fault with the air intake manifold. I asked for an explanation in English and was advised that two metal flaps had broken off and fallen inside the engine. The ‘tapakata’ grinding was the metal being mashed by and mashing the pistons and cylinders. “That sounds bad,” I said in my cheeriest ‘oh well, cars eh?’ voice. “How much will it cost to fix?” There was a pause before the technician said, “Seven thousand pounds.” Well, I barely paused at all before saying, “SEVE… What the fffggggnnn… you are SHITTING me, right???” “Then there’s the labour…” he added quietly, “…plus tax. In round numbers, ten grand.”

“So what you’re telling me is it’s a write-off,” I said. “I thought BMW engines were bulletproof. I thought BMW diesel engines were simply invincible. This one’s less that five years old, BMW serviced from new and has only done seventy thousand miles. It’s barely run-in.”

“Mmmm.” He said. “I can submit a ‘goodwill claim’ to BMW for you.”
“You mean it shouldn’t have happened?”
“I can’t say that Sir, but I can submit a goodwill claim with no liability attached.”
“So you do mean it shouldn’t have happened.”
“All I can say, Sir, is that it is ‘unusual’ and we wouldn’t normally expect a BMW of this age, with this mileage, to experience this fault.”
“It shouldn’t have happened.”

At this point, I could make a reasonable case, that if the salesman had listened to me the first time round, I would have been in a new car before this problem ever arose. But I’m not going to do that, because that’s not the thing.

A few days later, I received a call from the technician…
“Good news Mr. McKee. We’ve heard from BMW and they’re prepared to make a goodwill repair contribution of £8,500.00. You would just have to pay the balance of £1,500.00.”
“So it shouldn’t have happened then.”
“It’s a goodwill gesture Mr. McKee, that’s all I can tell you.”
“Ok Mike, I’m a reasonable guy and it sounds like BMW is being reasonable so ‘Ok’, in principal, that’s acceptable. However…”

And I went on to explain that it would be a pointless waste of everyone’s time and money to spend the £8,500.00 on the repair when I didn’t actually want the car back. What I wanted was a new car. A new BMW. I explained that I’d been trying to buy one from them for a while but was a little confused by their seemingly mandatory test-drive policy. I was ‘happy’ to pay for my new car – anything up to the equivalent of a small neighbourhood in certain parts of Manchester – and all I needed now was for BMW to turn the £8,500.00 repair offer into a virtual part exchange. Basically and very simply (in my mind…) they could keep the old car (that shouldn’t have broken). I would accept their £8,500.00 car token and immediately and conditionally more than quadruple the value by adding cash to buy a new BMW from their showroom.

It all seemed so easy to me. I was the customer being inconvenienced, I knew what I wanted, I wasn’t going to make a fuss about the car that shouldn’t have broken and I was very reasonably going to reinvest the money they were offering me and add to the pot by giving them more. From BMW’s perspective, I figured they’d be happy to satisfy the customer, even better, the customer was going to spend even more money and even, even, betterer, the customer was going to continue driving a BMW, continue spending money on BMW servicing for the lifecycle of the car and would doubtless tell anyone who would listen about his experience with the BMW brand. Well, I was right about the last point.

BMW said, “No.” Not, ‘No and here’s the thinking behind our decision because we’d still like to retain you as a customer.’ Just, “No.”

Which brings me on to the thing. This story is a bit about money, it’s a bit about customer service, but that’s not the thing. The thing is about Brand Reputation. I expected more from the BMW brand. I must have spent in the region of quarter of a million pounds with BMW as a driver and, up until the point where my perceptions of the brand changed, I would doubtless have continued spending. I remember reading a BMW case study in college where the point was made that BMW didn’t try to sell customers a car, they wanted to secure customer loyalty to the brand so that they had ‘BMW drivers for life’. An admirable quest, but clearly complete bollocks.

I won’t be buying another BMW. Not now, not ever. I don’t imagine for a second that BMW will notice the difference but I will nonetheless exercise my right as a customer to take my money elsewhere. My perceptions of the brand have changed – for the worse. I’m going to be telling other people of my experience too, you’re reading this for example, and who knows, maybe that will influence the perceptions of others. One car buyer walking away (twice) from BMW is barely troubling, but if this experience is typical of the brand’s values, I don’t imagine it will be long before we’re all walking away. If I was the person responsible for maintaining the BMW brand reputation I’d be more than a little concerned.

The ‘Ultimate Driving Machine.’ Really?

Scot McKee