Chris Bangle Sucks

Adam Bahret
Adam Bahret

It almost feels dystopian. Every car on the road is silver and has bodywork that is “flame surfaced.”  Flame surfaced is sharp convex and concave shapes that come together as creases along the body. It’s exhausting and to me, camouflage because there is little continuity or real shape. I can’t tell if a car is a Subaru, Hyundai, or Toyota anymore.

This style was created in 2001 by BMW’s head of design Chris Bangle.  He introduced the new “flame surface” style with the 7 series, the flagship model, and quickly carried it over to the 5 and 3 series. Those models have a cult-like following. Scratch that, a cult following.  The BMW community was not happy. Petitions were started to have him removed. A website, “ChrisBangleSucks.com” appeared and saw heavy traffic.

Over the years, competitors, who originally mocked this style began to copy it simply because it was associated with high-end cars, and something new.  It’s like when fluorescent colors come back in style and they show up in everything from t-shirts to prom dresses.  You reluctantly purchase them to appear “up to date,” but god, are you happy when it’s over

One of the reasons Chris Bangle was so loathed is he messed with an iconic philosophy of design. This philosophy wasn’t just aesthetics. BMW was a reliable, high-performance car that could be driven every day by a sophisticated individual.  It was the automotive equivalent of an executive in a slim suit that showed they lifted weights and did IronMans on the weekend. A sophisticated, accomplished, and sporty individual.

BMW used this new flame surface aesthetic as a visual announcement for deeper engineering and product strategy changes. They were now going to cram new technology into every aspect of the car at an insane pace.  Reliability was no longer a concern if you had that new lane departure feature one year before anyone else.

Reliability went down the toilet. BMWs from 2001 on are plagued with issues. Deciding to buy a BMW in that period was a lifestyle choice.  Not a prestige-type lifestyle choice where you have to get new higher-class friends. More of you just picked up a new time-consuming hobby lifestyle choice. You now are on a relay team where you exchange your car for a dealer loaner regularly.

So why the sudden philosophy shift, “new tech out the door before it’s ready and sign up the customers as test engineers?” BMW knew a new big market had emerged. This was a smart move if you were a business executive and wanted to increase revenue over the next few quarters.

There was a new buyer out there. The “.com” millionaires were out there.  Young, flashy, and impressed with anything high tech and cutting edge.  These kids didn’t have humility or sophistication, flame surface the hell out of that thing just so people look at it. These guys wanted the automotive equivalent of a fluorescent orange tight t-shirt that cost $500 and had the label on the outside so the barista at the local coffee shop knew how much they paid for it. This was who BMW wanted to sell to.

So, was this a bad move?  Probably not if you ask the accountants or investors in the following years. But here we are over twenty years later.  Is BMW still gaining market share?  Nope. In fact, they have been continuously losing it for years, and it’s accelerating.  That flashy style has carried all the way down to economy cars; the tech has too. Every base model car has a touchscreen Bluetooth, lane departure, active cruise control, etc.  Luxury cars that cost half as much from brands like Hyundai have similar or better performance and superior reliability. The brands they used to laugh at as Dollar Store cars are now eating their lunch with better products that sell for far less.

So now what?

BMW picked a short-term gain product factor balance strategy and now must deal with the long-term consequences.

I can’t tell you how much I see this “new customer” money grab in tech companies across all industries. Sophisticated companies send unproven technology to customers to get the sale. Only to lose sales in the coming years because the customer is tired of doing the relay race in the proverbial loaner car. This can be the start of a difficult-to-recover downward spiral. The vultures are waiting in the wings. By the time the “recovery phase” of maturing the product in the field has occurred, a competitor has introduced a highly reliable version of the product that costs 30% less.  They can do this because they only had to do a solid reliability program during product development, not deep R&D. The first company kindly did that for them.

Now the market tech leader is in a death spiral.  They must keep investing heavily in R&D to try and stay relevant, but very likely won’t profit from it again.  They’ll get it to market fast and never make the core correction of balancing reliability risk with time to market. They will be in another recovery phase as the vultures reverse engineer their tech in place of an expensive R&D program, and then simply do a solid Design for Reliability development program and get to market with a fantastic product.

Do you know your Product Factor Balance? Have you even identified what the key factors are?  Is it “time to market,” “new technology,” “reliability,” and “cost point?” or something else? Have you decided how they direct decisions in the product development process?

Take a moment and list the technology development decisions from the past you have made that were short-sighted.  What would you tell yourself or your leadership to do differently if you could send a message back in time?

So Chris,  I don’t think you suck.  You are an innovative designer whose creation became the poster child for a business strategy that I really, really dislike. I also don’t drive BMW’s so my feelings never got hurt.  All my betrayal and heartache go to what happened to Porsche when they got too cozy with VW at the end of the 1990s.

-Adam

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