BMW Group's leading designer on collaboration and betting his career on an idea

Adrian van Hooydonk is the senior vice president of BMW Group design, looking after a portfolio of premium marques; Rolls Royce, Mini and BMW. He led the design on BMW's newest offering, the i3 model, which is the brand's first locally emission-free electric car.

The new model also has a low-emission manufacturing process and boasts interiors made from recycled PET bottles. Speaking exclusively to Marketing, van Hooydonk lays bare the real relationship between designers and marketers and how they rub along together.

How closely do you work with the marking side of the BMW group?

"We have very good contact with the marketing side of the company and in many ways I think we have a lot of things in common; we both try to imagine what the world will look like in three to five years. Obviously people in marketing do a lot of research and have a lot of data, but that data only tells you what’s being sold today, or if you’re lucky, what’s being sold next year, though very rarely will you find data examining what’s going to be sold in the next five years, making it incredibly hard to predict."

How collaborative is the process of creating a new car between designers and marketers?

"At the beginning of a project I have a workshop with the marketing team. I ask them to bring all the information they have relevant to the project and I ask my designers to bring along what they have been thinking about so far. But at that point we haven’t even started the process yet. We do an alignment workshop to gauge expectation and I ask the marketing team to voice or describe how they imagine the new product will look. This is very difficult because you’re talking about something that doesn’t exist yet. The marketers bring images of other products to help describe their vision and then we try to describe the character of the product we are going to design, as if it were a human being. We try to agree on what character we want to portray. Only then do we start the design phase.

"We treat the design phase as a competition, coming up with four of five solutions to the brief, but we need to make a selection based on what we agreed in the original workshop at the start of the process. It helps me to know what’s in marketers’ heads before I start, otherwise I might get surprised by the end of the project."

What you think marketers and designers have in common?

"There is still something, like an idea, that somebody needs to interpret and that is the designer’s role. I think what marketers and designers have in common is that if they’re good, they look beyond the product they’re responsible for and they question what is here today. In my mind, there is no guarantee that what is successful today will be successful in a couple of years, and marketers should be thinking along the same lines; the minute you start believing otherwise you’re veering towards a cliff face."

Do you find there is a lot of push and pull between the designers and marketers?

"There definitely will be over the course of a project, which in our case lasts between three and five years, because markets can change. Luckily, we’re a global company so we’re not dependent on a single market, but there tends to be somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction if a market goes down or a certain product doesn’t work anymore that will immediately lead to re-briefing the design team. Ultimately the most difficult decision to make when this kind of discussion happens is which of the available proposals will sell more than the others. It just so happens that typically it will be the designer that is willing to bet their career on that decision, where few marketers would. It’s very hard to do, but somehow the company expects a very rational explanation and predictions on the market that need to be 100% correct, whereas for us designers they don’t expect such certainty in a future prediction, but they tend to trust our gut feelings."

BMW has just unveiled a zero carbon emissions model, the BMW i3. Does this mean that sustainability is being put at the heart of the business?

"For us as designers - yes. To put it bluntly, we believe that within the premium product industry the customer simply wants to enjoy life. They want to lead the life that they choose to lead without ever being told what is good and what is not so good and they should be doing less of. If we are able to offer products that people can enjoy that manage to solve the sustainability issue for consumers then we see this as a big market opportunity. Part of offering premium products is knowing that the brand should take care of consumers’ difficult problems and people should expect this opportunity from us first, before they would expect it from a mass market brand."

Watch out for a series of special features on design in Marketing's next issue, out later this month.  


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