When I first encountered the term, masstige, I was intrigued. This was during an episode of The Gruen Transfer on the ABC. Panellist, Todd Sampson used the term so comfortably it must have been part of his vocabulary for a long time. I listened intently as he defined the term. I remember thinking that a prestige product, a well-made quality item that the masses could afford had to be a good thing, particularly when it came to cars. The time I’ve had to consider this further has coincided with BMW’s global model expansion. I’m no longer as open-mined about the concept of masstige as I once was.
Over the last decade, BMW has rapidly expanded their product line-up. They now compete in every category from small hatchback to limousine and have a fleet of SUVs and performance cars. They have also taken it upon themselves to fill every conceivable market niche in pursuit of profit and market share. In fact, the only significant sales category in Australia that they don’t have a vehicle in is light commercial. Based on BMW’s rapid portfolio expansion, it’s remarkable they are not looking at ways to enter this section of the new vehicle market. In Australia, not having a Duel Cab Ute for sale surely costs them some market share. This is something German rival Mercedes-Benz is currently working to address. Mercedes though is slightly different, they have a history in the commercial market and have a genuine commercial division. BMW are a unique brand, a brand that is now at the point of moving from prestige to masstige.
Before the social media police start to comment, I understand the same argument can be made in relation to the other premium German brands. Audi and Mercedes-Benz are also guilty of moving from prestige to masstige. Mercedes-Benz has recently stated its plan to add an additional 10 body styles to its range within four years. There is no end in sight for any of these brands, however, for this article BMW will be the focus.
From what was a simple, yet sensational product line up not that long ago, BMW now have such an extensive range of models it can be challenging to keep up with them. The expansion of models includes: the 1 Series Hatch, the 2 Series Coupe and Convertible, the 3 and 5 Series GTs, the X6 and X4, and last but not least, the completely unnecessary, 2 Series Active Tourer. Most of the models in this list exist to fill markets that most likely didn’t need to be filled. Even the most diehard BMW enthusiast or fanboy would find it difficult to justify BMW’s now extensive product lineup.
As a result of this expansion, it is now more affordable than ever to get into a new BMW. The BMW website lists the 118i Hatchback for $36,900 plus on-road costs. It’s not exactly cheap for what it is, but it is for a car carrying a BMW badge. The lowered entry point to the BMW range opens the showroom door to those that may not have previously considered a new prestige car.
This leads to a question. At what point does BMW’s product expansion and lower entry price jeopardise its reputation as a prestige brand? Exclusivity is part of what makes up the prestige philosophy. Something everyone could aspire to own, but not everyone could afford. This is the space BMW used to occupy. Their products are no longer as exclusive as they once were and this has to take some shine off the badge and reduce its overall desirability.
BMW was the prestige car for the enthusiast. The brand for the cashed up car buyer who knew something about cars and appreciated the history and pedigree of the badge. BMW have begun to move away from the core values and philosophies that helped shape its reputation as the Ultimate Driving Machine. The once non-negotiable rear wheel drive ideal is gone. Rear wheel drive, along with 50:50 weight distribution has been a cornerstone of the BMW driving dynamics narrative. This value went to water with the release of the front wheel drive 2 Series Active Tourer, a car they didn’t need to make. I have labelled this, the unnecessary BMW. The first BMW for those that don’t care much about cars, hardly the Ultimate Driving Machine.
The argument has been made that the model doesn’t matter, it’s the badge that makes the difference. A BMW is a BMW regardless of the model. To an extent, this statement is correct. Sitting in a 1 Series Hatch isn’t that much different to sitting in a 3 Series Sedan. The 2 Series Active Tourer is just too far a stretch to be accepted as a genuine BMW. Front wheel drive is going to be part of the future BMW product lineup. There is a front wheel drive model X1 and no doubt other X models will follow. It’s difficult to understand why BMW would see this as a good idea. People are often happy to pay more for their cars. People will pay more for the heritage associated with the brand. With this in mind, their move to front wheel drive cars is unnecessary. The packaging argument is a weak one. A front wheel drive layout doesn’t create that much extra cabin space. The other argument, front wheel drive cars handle just as well is also feeble for a brand that has been singing the advantages of rear wheel drive for the last 50 years.
It is inevitable that the more diversified the product range becomes, the more the original values are diminished. It’s hard to formulate an argument against this when it comes to BMW. Business is here to make a profit. However, when the relentless pursuit of profit and market share come at the expense of the things that made the brand great, surely it’s time to rethink the corporate strategy.
The issue of BMW’s model expansion has also come to light with the recent release of the new M2. The M division was the last place BMW had left to diversify. The M2 lowers the entry point into the M range and detracts from the other models. The M2 has been very well received by the motoring press and from all reports it’s a great car, however, its release and cheaper price point devalues the status attached to the M brand. Hopefully, this will be the lowest BMW will go to get people into one of their M cars.
It was remarked to me that Porsche and Maserati now fill the places in the market formally occupied by BMW and to an extent, Mercedes-Benz. Porsche and Maserati are also expanding their respective product ranges and moving further away from the core ideals and standards that established their heritage. Regardless, it has proved a successful strategy. Both Porsche and Maserati are selling more cars than ever before and profits are high. This growth, however, will eventually come at a compromise. The exclusivity of their products will also be diminished as the range grows and becomes more affordable.
Exclusivity is a significant purchasing consideration for many buyers with big money to spend. For the price of a BMW M3 or well optioned 5 Series, buyers can now move into a Maserati Ghibli. It’s not a better car than those offered by BMW at a similar price, but the badge is far more exclusive. Recently I had the opportunity to start a Car Conversation with a gentlemen who had made the move to a Maserati Ghibli. The former BMW driver had highlighted exclusivity as a reason for the decision. He remarked, there are so many BMW models around now, they no longer have the same appeal. Seeing his Ghibli parked next to a 5 Series certainly highlighted this point. The Ghibli is a cracking looking car and when side by side with a BMW, it becomes even more desirable. BMW’s diversifying of their product range might be luring new customers, but it will also certainly cost them some if the man in the new Ghibli is anything to go by.
Exclusivity is something Porsche and Maserati will need to monitor into the future. It is foreseeable their respective ranges will continue to grow. Maserati is currently manufacturing their first SUV. With booming SUV sales, it’s likely to be a smashing success. If the example set by Porsche is anything to go by, a smaller SUV will be added to the portfolio at some stage.
Improved market share is something all brands chase, however, for some of them, this comes at a cost. A prestige badge can no longer be as desirable when the exclusivity of that badge has been compromised. This is where BMW now sit. A prestige brand that many can now afford moves them towards the classification of masstige. If BMW is determined to continue down this road, I hope they at least remain true to the ideals that established the brand. Accessibility is sometimes a great thing, but the challenge for BMW is being accessible in some categories while staying true to its foundations and remaining the Ultimate Driving Machine.
Let's start a Car Conversation, do you still consider BMW a prestige brand? Does it still accurately represent the heritage of the brand? Is their model range too broad?