An interview with Hildegard Wortmann, BMW's Senior Vice President

- Leadership - Mar 03, 2017

“The Z8 for me is still one of the most perfect pieces BMW has ever made,” enthuses Hildegrad Wortmann, BMW’s Senior Vice President of product management and brand.

“I can’t believe it was such a long time ago when they produced it, but it has stood the test of time. I wish I could drive one. If you know someone willing to sell for an attractive price then let me know. I’ll have it one day.”

An impassioned motorist and longing admirer of BMW’s creations, it was arguably fate which brought BMW and Wortmann together after eight years at Unilever. Having helped mastermind the rise of Calvin Klein’s illustrious cosmetics brand, it was on a Friday afternoon in 1998 that she made the leap to cars.

“I gave the BMW marketing head at the time a call to ask if they had anything I could work on, and he said in a very true deep Bavarian tone ‘come along and have a chat’, which I did. A couple of weeks later I had a contract. I was very fortunate that everything fell into place.”

Reviving a legend

Not long after the turn of the millennium, BMW brought back one of the motoring world’s greatest ever icons, the MINI. A landmark project for the company and for Wortmann, the risks associated with modernising a proven legend were obvious - the brand had succeeded, its place in history safely secured. If the relaunch was going to be pulled off, a fresh perspective was needed.

“One reason why BMW took me on board was to bring a different approach into automotive, this having come from Unilever and Calvin Klein,” Wortmann says. “For me it was a once in a lifetime chance to be allowed to relaunch a brand with such an amazing history and personality. We had to change a lot to make sure it remained relevant and worthwhile for modern times.

“I have a huge amount of respect for what the MINI brand stood for, and on the other hand seeing what our engineers did on the product was fantastic. We soon realised what extraordinary potential the brand still had to offer. It was a raw diamond in my hand which we treated like a new start-up company within BMW.”

Authenticity is a keyword which appeared numerous times in our conversation about the general rules of physics when it comes to what makes a successful brand. The MINI project was no different. Once renowned for its maximisation of space, go-kart feel when driven and distinctive appearance with all four wheels on the corners of the bodywork, the new MINI maintains these vital characteristics. “It also remained true to its original quirkiness,” Wortmann adds. “The strong personality, the fact it wasn’t just another small car, really appealed to customers.”

Back to the beginning

Despite the remarkable branding success delivered by the new generation MINI, it was only in June that brand was added to Wortmann’s official job title. Having been responsible for product management worldwide for seven years, it became clear that product development and branding are inseparable. 

 “Why did we do it? The product and brand in one hand allows us to start with the communications thinking and brand positioning at the earliest possible opportunity i.e. the stage we start developing a product. Everything stems and starts from the brand, and we can put this in practice now.

“And although we are not yet communicating at this stage to the outside, my brand team has a much greater idea of what the brand is about, and how it can be positioned. The product guys in turn get a much better understanding of what they need to design in order to get the brand into the product.”

So what can Wortmann reveal about new innovations and vehicle designs in the BMW pipeline? The cards are close to her chest, at least for now. “Watch this space, there’s definitely lots of cool stuff to come,” she says.

Trust

The conversation soon returns to the value of authenticity, and with it, trust. With branding now very much at the heart of Wortmann’s job, I ask a simple question: What is a brand?

“In the proper sense, a brand is something you promise,” she explains. “A promise in today’s times where customers look for orientation and have an explosion of choices becomes ever more complex. It’s a matter of trust in which you can invest and rely on.”

Consumer-brand relations have become increasingly intertwined and intense, resulting in an individual consumer’s portfolio of brands shrinking despite the almost unlimited access opened up online.

“The consumer’s digital life is adding complexity, and each individual only has 10 or 15, maximum 20 brands in their portfolio that they depend on, admire and trust,” Wortmann adds. “Our job is to make sure that the BMW brand is one of those in people’s individual worlds.”

How can brands such as BMW ensure this happens? “I don’t want to sound conservative, but a brand is something that should be safeguarded and not played around with. We are seeing disruption and trial and error in so many different ways today, which is something I am all for in terms of innovation activities, but a brand is something that you need to be extremely careful with.

“The brand should always be the starting point for any discussion to do with new products, services and campaigns – what is the brand style, what does the brand require, what does the brand promise. The product should never come second to the brand.

“Customers understand a lot of different experimentations and changes, but value the core. Brands cannot be fake, as customers see straight through it. Brands should have a purpose over a long period of time but at the same time we should not stand still.”

Meritocracy

It is this complexity, innovation and disruption seen in the automotive sector today that fuels Wortmann’s belief that now is the best time there has ever been to join. Far from recognising automotive as a ‘masculine’ industry, a question she is asked all too often, Wortmann is a passionate believer in simply putting the right person in the right job.

“I don’t think of automotive as being a male dominated industry,” she says. “The old metal sheet stuff has completely transformed into digital technologies. You can change, create and influence at will.

“I want to have the best people in a high performance team which is passionate and motivated. I have some fantastic women in my team and also some fantastic men too.”

And for those budding engineers and creatives seeking a career in the ever-transforming motoring trade, Wortmann concludes by urging fearlessness.  

“Everything is possible, you just have to grab it and do it. The only person who can hinder that is yourself. If something goes wrong, what is the worst that can happen? In most cases, the answer to that is nothing.”

Read the March 2017 issue of Business Review Europe magazine. 

Follow @BizReviewEurope

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