Ashwini Gangal

“There's more access to luxury today”: Pallavi Singh, BMW

An interview with BMW India's marketing head Pallavi Singh on how top-end automobile brands engage consumers.

There's marketing and then there's marketing. Custodians of premium or luxury brands have a playbook very different from the one that guides their non-luxury counterparts.

Premium brands must retain their air, without being snooty, they must communicate in a way that's inclusive, without becoming massy... and then there's the affordable luxury conundrum. How then does a marketer in this segment balance being top-end with being accessible?

Moreover, the marketing job doesn't end with a sale; owners of luxury brands are indulged even after that. And it's important for them to connect with their fellow owners – why?

We sought some answers from Pallavi Singh, marketing director, BMW India, who has cut her teeth on marketing top-end automobile brands, both two and four-wheelers, over the past decade.

Before joining BMW around July this year, Singh was head of marketing at Morris Garages India (MG Motor), prior to which she led marketing for Harley-Davidson India for nearly eight years.

Edited excerpts.

L-R: Ashwini Gangal and Pallavi Singh. Watch the full interview here.

BMW India's recent ad features extremely young men and women. The message is 'don't delay buying a BMW' because 'some things are best enjoyed young'. Are you really targetting the 25 year old?

It's not about age anymore; it's a mindset that cuts across age groups. The purpose of our brand is joy and 'Sheer Driving Pleasure', so we're saying don't postpone joy. It could be a 25 year old, a 60 year old... owning a product today is not just about owning a machine. It's also about the post purchase experience, about meeting the right people... we have a golf tournament happening... so it's about what consumers want, not what marketers want. It's shallow to just sit in office at our computers and make decks. We must get our hands dirty and get to know our customers – their triggers and barriers.

Two month old advert for BMW India

The ad ends with information about easy installments. Does talking about EMI and discounting like this take away from the premium halo of the brand? Or is that a trade off you're willing to make because selling units is what matters?

At the end of the day, we all have KPIs and we're in the business of getting more people to drive our cars. We want to create more access points for people to be part of the brand, the dealer network... the whole automotive infrastructure.

It matters how you communicate it; if done well, it does not take the halo away for sure. That's where digital becomes important.

Exactly five years back you told me that Estée Lauder is luxury and Victor Rolf is premium. Let's get the nomenclature right once more – is there a difference between luxury and premium today? Great if you contextualise that with BMW...

It's different today. It's very personal today. People today may not want to own expensive products but may prefer spending their money on experiences, like scuba diving, which also costs a lot.

Today, access is very important. India is going away from luxury a little, and luxury is being decoded today. There's more access to luxury today.

Experience has become important, including the post purchase experience of a luxury buyer. And that's not just about the service, it's also about bringing these buyers together and having personal conversations with them – that's where technology plays an important role. For the luxury segment, human interaction is very important.

From a BMW context, we're trying to change the narrative, as the consumer has changed.

So there's a directional drift away from luxury, towards premium, right?

It's more about wanting to be 'lifestyle'...

And whether premium or luxury, brands want to come across as inclusive. Intimidation is not right today. A brand can be aspirational and inspire you to be (up there), and that's why marketers are doing more purpose driven marketing today.

A big part of top end car marketing is club culture related. Given the emphasis on exclusivity and 'members only' in-groups, is it fair to say that marketing in this segment draws on the blueprint of snobbery? Or is it about enabling owners of top end products to 'network' with one another?

It's about meeting new people and learning from them. Everybody is busy and is looking for ways to be connected with people who are like them. With so much going on in your personal and professional life, you want to get away. And that's where the idea of building communities comes from, whether it's for art or culture, for example.

I don't believe in being elitist. The new consumer wants to be part of something inclusive, yet aspirational... not elitist. That's why the automotive (segment) is being more community and purpose driven. That's why we at BMW have different layers of our club culture.

In the premium bike segment, it's about owners riding and banding together. Does that strategy work with premium cars? Despite the community aspect in premium car marketing, it seems like it's more about standing out...

Two-wheelers are just for yourself; four-wheelers are also for the family. So the two categories, and their strategies to approach customers, are very different.

Recently, Lamborghini launched premium beverages and blends – vodka, hot chocolate, coffee. What's your take on product extensions like these in the premium segment?

I think it's imperative, because it's not just about selling 'a product' today. You have to sell – rather, share – something that's larger than the product. You can't depend on just the core product.

Product extensions are for fans and aspirants of the brand. Lot of brands are doing it, us included. We have a culinary series for which we tie up with high-end chefs to curate experiences for people. There's no product displayed there; it's more experiential.

So are extensions more like accessories for existing owners of the core product, or affordable alternatives for aspirants who can't buy the core product? Someone who can't afford a BMW car can still enjoy wearing a BMW jacket, for instance...

It depends on the insight behind the extension.

But yes, mostly this is done for fans of the brand... for those who may want to own that 'badge' – a small piece of the thing you may want to buy over time.

What does the advertising and media pie look like to a luxury marketer?

80 per cent of our focus is on experience. There's also a lot of focus on post purchase marketing, which is service marketing.

Lastly, let's talk about the economic slowdown. While some theorists say the luxury segment is recession proof, there are reports about shrinking car sales. How worried are you?

It's been an unconventional year; nobody thought it would be like this. But it's not just about the automotive category; it's across industries. There's a 'wait and watch' mindset.

It's something we all have to battle through. No market is always smooth sailing. Right now, it's a roller-coaster. Hopefully, we'll see an upsurge soon.

There is tension, but it's the right time for marketers to think about what they can do differently.

This interview was conducted at the first edition of Great Lifestyle Brands, an event organised by afaqs!.

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