Auto Industry

Getting bigger in China

BMW’s marketing savvy sees surge in sales of iconic British car, the Mini

MINI Cooper w

The not-so-mini version

Fans of the Michael Caine movie The Italian Job typically remember two scenes most. The first features Caine and his explosives expert trying to force their way into an armoured van (“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”).

The other sees Caine and his colleagues racing through the streets of Turin in their Mini Coopers in one of the most famous car chases in cinematic history. The high-speed chase boosted the status of the small but nimble British car all over the world.

The film even has a China connection, and one that more bizarrely still also involves the car industry. That’s because the gold that Caine and his gang plan to steal belongs to the Chinese government. It’s set to be paid to Fiat on the fictional premise that the Italian firm will build a factory in the country.

So perhaps it’s fitting that when BMW, Mini’s current owner, wanted to boost the brand’s sales in China, it released a special edition vehicle that it named ‘The Chinese Job’.

To promote the new model BMW also hosted an event in which it invited the country’s best drivers to compete on a circuit that mimicked Caine’s chase through Turin. First held in 2011, the Chinese contest now happens every year, showing off the car’s manoeuvrability to the watching crowds.

In fact, Mini’s Chinese marketers are a creative bunch. Last year, they even set a world record, when Chinese driver Han Yue parallel parked a Mini between two adjoining cars with a combined 15cm of separation between the three sets of bumpers. Han achieved this feat by ‘drifting’ the car into the space at high speed, a technique that requires an expert combination of braking, steering and timing. (Footage can be seen on YouTube, with the clip titled ‘Tightest parallel parking record beaten at new Mini launch’ – though earlier this year Han’s record was broken in the UK, albeit also using a Mini.)

More recent news again highlights the growing importance of Chinese consumers for Mini’s future, including this summer’s launch of the John Cooper Works models. Ten years after the first Mini was sold in China, its range now boasts a line-up of 22 models.

The new Mini John Cooper Works GP is the brand’s highest-performance vehicle, having lapped the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife circuit in 8 minutes 23 seconds, putting it in sports car territory. “The launch of John Cooper Works models is the best birthday gift to celebrate Mini’s decade of development in China,” says Zhu Jiang, head of Mini brand management at BMW. “From its first win in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally to its most recent victories in the Dakar Rally, it’s a symbol of Mini’s strong racing heritage.”

The hope is that the latest release – which costs between Rmb399,000 ($65,188) and Rmb439,000 in China – will help to strengthen Mini’s appeal in China, particularly among men. As 21CN Business Herald points out, many Chinese men had long viewed the Mini as merely a “shopping cart for housewives”. Another factor counting against the Mini was its compact size. Most men also believed the larger the car the better, in status terms.

BMW has been working on changing these perceptions. “Five years ago, 95% of Mini customers were women,” says Zhu. “From 2009 we began to strengthen the brand’s masculine positioning as a sporty vehicle. Today the male-female ratio is about 70:30.”

Aside from some of its high-octane events, Zhu’s team has also changed the car’s slogan in China to appeal more to men, adapting a Confucian saying that translates as ‘a gentleman is always open and at ease’ (it sounds catchier in Chinese).

Sales have been growing. In 2009 the brand sold 4,368 cars; last year sales were 23,275.

Zhu says that the Mini is a premium vehicle for China’s increasingly affluent middle class. And although he wants more men to buy his cars, he hasn’t forgotten his female audience. One selling point for lady buyers is that the car can be personalised to a much greater extent than its rivals, Zhu says. At company dealerships (of which there are now over 70), customers can choose from a wide range of trims and upholsteries as well as customise parts of the car’s exterior.

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