BMW's global head of marketing: sometimes you need to shut up

Q&A: Hildegard Wortmann discusses why there aren't more women in the automotive sector and how to grab attention in the age of social media.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 29 Nov 2016

Hildegard Wortmann is the global head of marketing at BMW and one of the most senior women in the global automotive industry. It is the Munich-based business’s 100th anniversary and the world of cars is undergoing huge change with the advent of electric-powered and autonomous vehicles. New competitors in the premium and luxury segments which BMW occupies include not just Tesla but also potentially Apple and Google.

Hildegard did her MBA in London and worked on L’Oreal and Calvin Klein at Unilever before joining BMW in 1998. She was a key player in the re-launch of the Mini and got the top Brand job earlier this year.

BMW’s advertising and marketing has changed considerably in recent years. It used to be the most male of marques. Gone are the days of The Ultimate Driving Machine double page spreads where the car was the sole hero and representations of human beings were banned. Now they are heavily into the world of digital and social influencers.

MT’s editor Matthew Gwyther met Hildegard on a recent trip to London and interviewed her in an achingly hipster converted warehouse in Shoreditch.


Gwyther: Hildegard – where to do you think marketing is now?  Has conventional mass media advertising declined in importance since the heady days of the 1980s when BMW was highly visible on TV, in magazines and in cinema? 

Wortmann: If you look at the current world compared to 30 years ago that is a long time. I cannot recall that far back. However if you take the last five years the marketing world has changed tremendously. Everyone is talking about iconic changes in technology,  electromobility and autonomous drive for cars. Likewise the way individuals consume and approach media has changed tremendously.

Gwyther:  Would you compare the advent of digital in marketing to the change that occurred in advertising in the 1950s when television was introduced?  

Wortmann: I wasn’t there when that happened! But yes probably, but even more large scale if you look at social media. It’s not just affecting communications, it’s changed our daily lives. We are lost without our digital devices.  

Gwyther: But if consumers are being subjected to up to 5000 marketing messages each and every day how on earth does a company like BMW get its voice heard these days? People are just switching off. Or actively blocking being sold to.  

Wortmann: Nobody can grasp 5000 messages. What has changed is the importance of brand. In the past brands could shout at consumers: ‘I’m the greatest, buy me!’. That  doesn’t work anymore. Customers have their own tiny world – they have decided which brands suit their lifestyle and to which they feel sympathetic. No consumer is listening to 5000 messages, only to those that are relevant to him/her and relevant is what s/he decides is relevant. It is not for us to dictate.

Gwyther: You worked previously in fashion and at Unilever and it’s been said that car companies have been slow to grasp effective 21st century methods of modern marketing – what did you bring?

Wortmann: I was at Unilever fragrance rather than fashion – fast moving consumer goods. But I've been in automotive for 18 years now.  I was working on the Mini brand which gave me a chance to relaunch it, which was a lifetime’s chance. It was a mega responsibility and super job. When I see how Mini has evolved over time it’s  marvellous to see how you can build something that is not just hype. I had product responsibility and in my new role at BMW I now have brand responsibility - it's precious and I will do that best that I can.

Gwyther: It seems as if the ad industry has lost a lot of confidence in recent years. Digital has it rattled as the old ways don’t seem to work any more. How can advertising be made more appealing and therefore more effective?   

Wortmann: It’s about creating something relevant. If you shout at consumers that is not going to work. Consumers are very intelligent, they know what they like and they decide. So if it’s relevant to them they will look at it – if not they will block it and they have every right to do that. Brands need to behave in a responsible and authentic way, it is about communicating the attitude of the brand.

Gwyther: What about the rise of social influencers –  the Kardashians and the Zoellas of this world? Global brands are latching on. Does this attract BMW and what are the risks?

Wortmann: I’m definitely excited about it. In 2016  you have to be able to run your brand in real time. In the past, you did analysis beforehand and afterwards. You had to be 100% sure how your ad would work. But media is real time now and influencers real time, so we have to be able to monitor our brand constantly – we are watching in a war room with all the monitors. We see who is talking to our brand in context. If you look at what we did with the M2 we had the launch with Gigi Hadid, the supermodel, who is a big influencer.  She did the launch, she drove it  and has made great postings for us. She had so much fun and posted on Instagram and that got 200 million views and was a massive influence. You reach the whole world in one go. It’s a great chance to be more courageous and convey the whole brand attitude rather than just facts.

Gwyther: But a great idea is still hugely valuable. Despite all the claims made for data and superbly targeted material, advertising is still an art with a sprinkling of magic isn’t it?

Wortmann: I totally agree that creative  excellence is the key asset. Putting a bad idea out there is the worst thing you can do. Equally there is a new huge challenge to our creative partners – they need to think about real time capability. You can't just do TV spots and chew it out. They have to think about the story in the long term, not just do one-off hype. We want something great for longer, sustained  periods.

Gwyther: The 7 Series is your flagship product. There has been a lot of talk about the massive amounts of data it can collect about driver behaviours - where they are, what they are doing, what they like and don’t like.  And it’s been suggested - with the rise of autonomous driving - that cars will become media properties in themselves. That it will be possible to send targeted ads to those inside them.

Wortmann: We have to be careful. If you sit in your car, sit in your BMW – that is a special moment when you have your Me Space and Me Time. It would be counterproductive to invade this with advertising. It could be disastrous. Yes there are touch points but you have to be careful and respect consumers.

Gwyther: Even BMW drivers need a bit of peace and quiet?  

Wortmann: Yes. There are times when you need to shut up.

Gwyther: You are a senior woman in your workplace. But the automotive industry is still heavily male-dominated, 16% in UK is female and only 18 % in Germany. Is this changing?

Wortmann: I’m senior? That makes me feel 10 years older than I am.... But yes a lot is changing and we are seeing more women in senior positions. Are there enough yet?  Of course not. But we are on the right track. We can’t stop now.  

Gwyther: Still far too few coming up from engineering. It’s more common for women to rise via marketing like you, isn’t it?

Wortmann: I’m not an engineer but I was given product responsibility for BMW seven years ago. The bosses showed trust in me. It can work. It comes down to your leadership skills. For me when it comes to leadership there is a simple rule: treat your colleagues how you like to be treated yourself. Show trust and appreciation and accept that you can never win on your own. You succeed with your partners and peers. You must allow different opinions, cope with criticism and try to grow. I’m still learning every day and I’m grateful when I get  honest feedback. You need to stay open no matter how old you get. And I still feel young.

Gwyther: Do you believe in the Scandinavian system of quotas for women in senior management positions?

Wortmann: Not at all. I believe in transparency but not quotas to help women catch up.  Gender diversity will make companies perform better. But the imposition of quotas is a very difficult issue. In the area of product management, as things currently are, I’d never find enough women to fill a quota of female jobs. Women must have the right competencies to succeed. No woman in the world wants to think she got that job just because she was a woman. You want to know you got it because you were the best. Quotas would harm the cause of women and lead to a loss of credibility.

Gwyther: You did your MBA in London and the UK is both a huge market for you and a very significant manufacturing base. How do you feel about our Brexit path?

Wortmann: I was surprised by Brexit. But now it’s happened we need to cope and handle it. BMW has a long history of investment here. There is no change in our sentiments. Our colleagues in Oxford are still our colleagues. But we need the right people to handle change.

Gwyther: Any advice for women coming into the car industry?

Wortmann: It’s the best time ever. There's so much change happening that chances are massive to create something new.

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