The Mini – Underdog makes Űberbrand

The Mini is a runaway success by most measures – except size, maybe.  Who would have thought that this quirky, tiny car could carve out significant market share, again, when most other brands were talking size, comfort or power? And this time around the Mini sells at a hefty premium.  This is a study in leveraging customization to enable customer identity creation and bonding.  But Mini also applies all the other aspects of successful ‘Überbranding’ from legend-telling to mission making.

Legendary ground for a modern icon.
The story of the new MINI (by BMW) is one of reviving an iconic British brand, re-interpreting it and evolving it to appeal to today’s global ‘hipster’ community (and their suburban followers) – at a significantly premium versus its popular original – even accounting for inflation.

Alex Issigonis and Enzo Ferrari

Alex Issigonis and Enzo Ferrari

The original MINI was designed in 1959 by Alex Issigonis – a Turkish-born émigré who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1969 for his contributions to British industry. The MINI Cooper S is was a zippy sports version developed with Formula 1 car designer John Cooper. MINI won three rallies at Monte Carlo in the 1960s, played a lead role in the 1969 cult movie “An Italian Job,” inspired Mary Quant to design the MINIskirt and generally became a car of choice for the cool and fashionable like Steve McQueen, The Beatles, Brigitte Bardot, Enzo Ferrari, Elton John or Lord Snowden. Owning a MINI was siding with the (rebellious) underdog.   Apart from being a culture icon, the MINI was a economical way to transport and a fun machine to more than 5 million owners. However, the car faded over time, being replaced with safer, more comfortable and efficient options. The stars and their following outgrew the MINI and it went in decline.   In 1994 BMW group bought the MINI Cooper business and re-introduced in its current, modern form in 2001.The modern MINI, is a reincarnation of the Swinging ’60s car – except that this time, it has captured a worldwide following. The MINI has been left nearly unchallenged in what analysts call “personality cars.”   Keeping the quirky character relevant and offering fresh experiences of individuality and ownership have prevented MINI from slipping into being a passing fad like the New Beetle (living off the past without creating current relevance) or the Saturn (betraying its ‘no-BS’ roots to become indistinguishably corporate Detroit).   Toyota’s Scion or the Fiat 500 are trying hard to emulate – but are missing the mission.

Mission Incomparable
MINI is ‘the little car that could’ for people who want to have- and show fun’. The car offers a personal style and attitude vocabulary that runs counter to the usual – i.e. a car as expression of power or wealth (eg. Mercedes), masculinity (Hummer) or as a practical family transporter (Honda). MINI is the David, the underdog. In one typical MINI commercial, a red MINI provokes a black GMC suburban in a parking lot to what resembles a bull fight. Repeatedly escaping the charging suburban, the big car finally grills its engine and the MINI circles around the fallen monster.

MINI is the little British pit-bull with a checkered past that lets you mark your liberal territory in a home car market that has lost any identity.

MINI Customization – Mission Identity
It starts with variant names like “Clubman”, “Paceman” or “Countryman.” They express that MINI pinch of British snobbery and whim mixed in with the Pop. After selecting the chassis, MINI buyers can select from among 372 interior options, from fabric or leather seats to the steering wheel cover, and 319 exterior options, from the type of engine to whether there are wide racing stripes on the hood.

That works out to 10 million theoretic variations. Prospective buyers can use the online “Configurator” to assemble their car before it is made – and they are encouraged to share their creations with friends. And according to MINI, over 80% of their customers DO customize. Apparently, only 2 in 100,000 MINIs end up being exactly identical. This is the mass execution of the kind of bespoke configurations MINI became famous for in the 60ies. Enzo Ferrari had one with extra built-in headlights, Paul McCartney a Roll Royce interior and Peter Sellers wicker-patterned doors. Today’s customization program allows the masses to be whimsical individualist and mark their territory with neighbors/impress their MINI Club co-members in a relatively effort and cost-efficient way.

Alternatively, you could choose one of over 70 limited editions the New MINI has introduced in its first decade including: MINI Ritz, MINI Park Lane, MINI Checkmate, MINI Paul Smith, MINI After Eight, MINI Lapagayo, MINI Italian Job (after the famous 60ies film and remake in which MINIs play an iconic role), MINI Cooper Chilli, MINI Soho or the MINI Agent Provocateur limited edition with laced roof and black leather interior.

Custom beyond Car
MINI creates products that allow the MINI user to take a symbol (or actual piece) of their favorite car along with them when they are not driving it. There is a “MINI coo coo clock, for example, in both real and virtual versions. Every hour, a little MINI comes out of a garage and circles the clock. The online version can do a lot more tricks and has the car change every time – if you want. Even a MINI shirt is not just a polo shirt with a logo. The MINI team came up with gear like a chamois jacket with sleeves that zip off, so “you can shine your MINI at a moment’s notice.”

And what about the drive itself? It doesn’t just have that peculiar MINI go-cart like feel but a special name, too. MINI and its fans tell us that the car is to be ‘motored,’ not driven.

Look at mine, while I check out yours
MINI found that ‘expecting’ and current MINI owners to be their best advocates and source of new model ideas. There is a MINI Owner’s Lounge online where buyers can track track the progress of their MINI’s creation in quasi real time. Owners were encouraged to share their feelings, stories, inspirations with the MINI team community.

But the meaning of the MINI is deepened really comes to life through the many thousands of aficionados who swap MINI stories and admire each others’ cars Club meets – real and virtual. There are hundreds of MINI Clubs on a global, national and very local level. These are where owners trade customization tips and pictures and share in- and/or talk about their exploits with the car.   The MINI marketing team is conscious of this mystifying role and its value to the brand. MINI wants owners to “FLIP” – to be entranced by Fun, Legacy, Individuality and Performance1. Contrary many other brands, they support a host of cottage accessory industries ranging from car-performance to body ‘enhancing’ parts to driver outfits. This extends customization beyond the already ever increasing customization options. How about the Rolls-Royce design “Goodwood” in “Cool Champagne” with turbo-charged engine, sports struts and extra fast racing stripes for contrast? This is sure to buy you ‘head car’ position at the next regional MINI Rally. Such involvement and ritual creation lends a level of distinctiveness and authenticity to the brand that others find hard to match2.

The Prices and Results are not so MINI
For its reintroduction BMW’s marketing strategy was to play “hard to get” for the MINI. In the US, for example, it deliberately limited American sales to about 25,000 out of the 200,000 that were produced in the launch year 2002. There was no national television advertising; rather BMW packed MINIs on top of sport utility vehicles and drove them around 24 cities. These and many other unconventional stunts created awareness and a reputation translating to significant demand. By 2010, sales in the US eclipsed those in the UK, and continued to grow at a rate of 15-25% annually. In 2012 over 300,000 units were sold worldwide– twice the original estimate by BMW group. Over 66,000 in the US, represents almost a 7% average share.

That is not a bad performance at all for what is essentially a very small but very expensive compact – and likely the second car in the garage. After all, a basic MINI sets you back some $20-25,000. Once you include the most sought-after customization options you end up in the $28-35,000 price range. That is the price of a BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class or any Volvo– previously the Liberal’s marquee of choice and now outsold by the Mini 2 to 1.

Who cares that the MINI does not exactly rank tops in JD Power mileage or quality ratings versus a Scion?  To call one your own – or “Mini Me” – is priceless … or at least translates to the highest resale values in its class.

Sources and further Reading:

Read more about MINI and other Ueberbrands in our bookRethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueberbrands

1 Read more about the FLIP MINI marketing strategy here:

2 Read some typical-obsessive MINI storytelling on a dedicated ‘MINI Motoring’ forum here:

About JP Kuehlwein

JP Kuehlwein is a global business leader and brand builder with a 25+ year track record of translating consumer and brand insights into transformational propositions that win in market. Principal at ‘Ueber-Brands’ a New York consulting firm, he now helps others to elevate brands and make them peerless and priceless. JP also teaches brand strategy at NYU Stern and Columbia Business School and leads the Marketing Institute at The Conference Board, all in New York. Jp previously was Executive Vice President at Frédéric Fekkai & Co, a prestige salon operator and hair care brand and lead brand- and corporate strategy development and execution at multinational Procter & Gamble as Brand Director and Director of Strategy. JP and Wolf Schaefer have co-authored the best-selling books “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands” which lays out what drives the success of modern premium brands and "Brand Elevation - Lessons in Ueber-Branding" a guide to developing and executing a brand elevation strategy. Find the books here:
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4 Responses to The Mini – Underdog makes Űberbrand

  1. Pingback: Cadillac – Resuscitation without Nostalgia nor Provocation? – Interview with Uwe Ellinghaus, CMO | Ueber-Brands

  2. Hans Thoma says:

    Good article! I’m not sure about the references to liberals though, ha ha. While I wouldn’t be surprised if Mini owners were more liberal than average, a good product should appeal to anyone regardless of political persuasion.

    I’ve noticed some people dismiss certain cars as being “for liberals”, “for conservatives”, “for hipsters”, “for teenagers”, “for old people”, “for women”, etc…….and that’s a shame. If you like to drive something, you should buy it, regardless of what other people think.

    In the Mini’s case, you have a small car that’s fun to toss around, with an interior created by people with a passion for design, and a bespoke customization process. So naturally it’s going to cost more than the competitors in its class. The fact that someone is willing to pay that premium doesn’t mean they’re a gullible hipster, à la the overly-perpetuated iPhone buyer stereotype. Maybe they’re just someone who appreciates design and is willing to pay more for it. Other people are willing to pay more for a bigger or faster car, and that’s never questioned or made fun of.


  3. davetuchler says:

    I’m typically a ‘frugal follower’ but I was an early adopter with the new Mini – we ordered a 2002 model and watched it go thru the birthing process online.
    What appealed to me was its combination of uniqueness, expression of self, as well as performance – – how can you not love a car with zero overhang at all corners? My wife and I took the Cooper S (stick, of course) for a test drive; took a few corners really fast, hit 100mpg without too much stress, and fell in love with it. There was simply nothing quite like it – small, interesting, well-performing, and when we bought, under $20k. We still have it (although not as the daily driver).
    I’m a big Mini fan (jumbo shrimp?), drove in a rally and even blogged about their clever, consistent marketing.

    What never crossed my mind even for a second was that there was any political tilt to Mini ownership – and I’m probably a bit on the red line of center. Volvo and Prius, and yes, Hummer, that’s another story. I just saw Mini’s positioning as cheeky, individualist and authentic. I think sometimes too much is read into a campaign’s motivations for the sake of triggering conversation (like this).

    Dave Tuchler
    The Armchair MBA


  4. Pingback: The Promise of ‘Bespoke’ – How Űberbrands go beyond ‘choice’ to create identity and extract a premium. | classified

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