“Eighty percent of the customers of our new family model ... are people who previously drove domestic brands”

State of the art

BMW Group Japan marks 35 years with a new flagship centre in Odaiba

Text by Gavin Blair  /  Photos by Benjamin Parks

Marking its 35th year of operations in Japan — as its parent company celebrates its 100th anniversary worldwide — BMW Group Japan is enjoying double-digit sales growth, even as the domestic auto market shrinks. The 35 years since becoming the first entirely owned subsidiary of a foreign manufacturer in Japan has been commemorated with the opening of an expansive, state-of-the-art dealership in Odaiba.

The €40 million, 27,000m2 BMW GROUP Tokyo Bay facility is both a flagship for the BMW and MINI brands in Japan, as well as a blueprint for its Future Retail concept that will be rolled out nationwide, according to country president and CEO Peter Kronschnabl.

BMW Group Japan has long been innovating in Japan, according to Kronschnabl, who previously served as the German automaker’s country head in India, Russia and Belgium-Luxembourg.

“We were the first car company in Japan to introduce a 24-hour emergency service and the first foreign manufacturer to have its own financial services operations,” he adds. With parts delivery centres and training centres in both Chiba and Kobe, a 25-person engineering facility, as well as a network of 360 outlets nationwide, BMW Group Japan is “heavily committed to this market, and has a clear plan for the future to continue growth.”

As Japanese auto sales shrunk 10% last year, BMW Group Japan’s strategies have been paying dividends as both its brands posted double-digit growth on the way to selling 21,083 MINIs and 46,229 BMWs, making this market one of the six most important markets worldwide for the parent company.   

Kronschnabl sees potential for further growth in both the luxury and import sectors — imported cars account for just 5%  — despite Japan’s strong domestic auto industry and tough sales environment.

“Eighty percent of the customers of our new family model [BMW 2 Series Active/Gran Tourer] are people who previously drove domestic brands, which is substantial, and for BMW is among the highest ‘conquest’ rates globally,” notes Kronschnabl, who relishes the challenges of the Japan market.

“Competition is good — it makes you stronger,” he states. “Weak competition just makes you weak.”

BMW’s design, dynamics and its “German engineering paired with German quality” are the big appeals for Japanese customers, according to Kronschnabl.

“MINI is very well perceived in Japan; it has a unique identity and is very hard to copy,” says Kronschnabl. “Its target market in Japan is creatives, who appreciate the brand’s heritage and compact premium brand image.”

Both brands are on display at the new showroom.

“BMW GROUP Tokyo Bay is our flagship and is the model for what we are going to roll out across the country,” Kronschnabl explains. “You can’t just be state-of-the-art with the cars, you have to also be state-of-the-art with people and processes.”

This is at the heart of BMW’s Future Retail concept, a crucial element of which is their Product Genius staff, who undergo a minimum of six months additional specialised training to take their knowledge of the automobiles and customer service to another level. There are currently 67 outlets in Japan which have at least one Product Genius, with plans to have at least one in every dealership by 2020.

“The customer’s first point of contact is with a salesperson,” Kronschnabl explains. “And of course, a salesperson wants to sell them something, but it may not be what the customer really needs. Maybe the car that is the easiest to sell is not the best for the customer. Because a salesperson will naturally want to sell what they can, but a Product Genius goes in a totally different direction because they’re an adviser; they want to find out what the customer really wants and find the right product for them.”

The overall concept for the new facility is that this isn’t just another car dealership.

“There are different worlds, so to speak, with ‘islands’ dedicated to the separate sub-brands,” says Kronschnabl.

There are BMW i electric cars, the 7 Series, BMW M, the core BMW range and BMW Motorrad motorbikes. A large area showcases BMW’s lifestyle range, including golf, clothing, and a BMW Isetta cafeteria-bar. And then there is MINI on the other side, including an area for John Cooper Works, the high-performance models.

“In the middle is the Café, in collaboration with Nespresso, which is a neutral area, and is about design and hospitality, or omotenashi,” Kronschnabl continues.

There is also a test-driving centre, where you can try out any BMW or MINI model. “At the end, there is a wet skid pad where you can test drive cars in difficult conditions and find out how they react, and also how you have to react,” he elaborates. “We also give driving lessons there.”

The complex at Tokyo’s waterfront also houses a fully-equipped conference centre that can be rented out. The centre has already hosted a PechaKucha event, the creative networking get-togethers where speakers present 20 slides in 20 seconds, and is in discussions to hold a TEDx Talk.

With Odaiba being one of the main venues for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, BMW sees the location of its new flagship as highly strategic for years to come.

BMW’s best-selling models in Japan don’t differ significantly from those available in other major markets, though it does make some minor adjustments to suit local requirements.

Because of Japan’s automated parking towers, “we had to make the door handles on the 3 Series 15mm narrower on each side or else they wouldn’t fit [into the parking slots]. And on the i3, we needed to adjust the height of the antenna to below 1.55 metres.”

The BMW i is BMW’s entry into the world of electric cars.

“We are the only premium brand that has developed dedicated electric cars from scratch, rather than taking an existing model and putting an electric engine in it,” Kronschnabl states.

Autonomous cars are the other current hot topic in the motor industry, and Kronschnabl sees the future as “100% hands off, feet off, brain off” — but with the option for a driver to take control of the vehicle always there.

“You may want to let the car drive when you’re in heavy traffic in the city,” he observes. “But then when you’re on a winding road out in the country, you want to be able to experience the joy of driving it yourself.”