BMW’s Mini no longer wants to be known as the kitsch auto icon. In a bid to disrupt itself before the automotive sector transforms beyond recognition, it’s squaring up to the likes of WeWork by diversifying into design-led real estate.
When Sir Alec Issigonis began designing the Mini Cooper in the late 1950s, his brief was simple: respond to the fuel shortage of the Suez crisis by devising the most efficient, affordable city car to transport four people and a suitcase. Its distinct charm and easy drive saw his creation quickly become a commercial success and a cultural icon that would endure way beyond the 20th century.
Now, Mini wants to solve a modern problem: the lack of living and working space in cities. The strategy is twofold: to prove its worth as a lifestyle brand – not just an automotive dealer; and to future-proof itself against the tide of ride-sharing and autonomous cars.
Esther Bahne, an Audi veteran, was brought on board to head up innovation for BMW in 2013. She initially worked “outside the day-to-day business” to think as disruptively as possible. But when her attention turned to Mini she saw tangible potential, and the board gave her the green light to implement her maverick strategy for the brand.
“The idea that we are a design brand has always been there; it's never been lost,” she said. “The question was, how do we take it to something like a lifestyle brand? How do we open it up? Our goal is that Mini rents you apartments and sells you clothes ... and offers you mobility services, rather than just being a car brand that also sells you accessories.”
Bahne now heads up a team of 45 people between Munich and New York, where Mini’s first foray into office space – A/D/O – is housed in Brooklyn's Greenpoint. The one-story building, which the company calls a ‘large-scale experiential space,’ houses a workshop for New York designers, offices for the cohort of Mini’s accelerator program, Urban-X, and a restaurant and meeting space that’s open to the public.
Collaboration between designers, startup founders, restaurateurs, and the freelance population of Brooklyn is encouraged. However, unlike coworking space provider WeWork, which is now the largest occupier of private office space in Manhattan, A/D/O does not employ ‘community managers’ to force relationships to thrive.
After two-and-a-half years ironing out the kinds in the Greenpoint space, Bahne felt ready to embark on a bigger project: residential living. If A/D/O is Mini’s version of WeWork then Mini Living is Mini’s WeLive.
One of WeWork’s growing list of verticals (it has recently launched a gym and childcare offering), WeLive offers rolling monthly contracts on ‘furnished, flexible’ spaces that range from studios to four-bedroom apartments. Rooms are petite and expensive, even by New York and DC standards, but tenants are sold the prospect of happy hours, yoga studios, communal kitchens, and laundromats that double as gaming arcades outside of their living space.
When Mini opens its first Living building in Shanghai's Jing'An district next year, Bahne believes “the difference in concepts will be palpable”.
“WeLive is like a nemesis,” she said. “It feels cold, anonymous, homogenous, and a bit exclusive, which is exactly the opposite of what we want to build. We’ve built the Shanghai flagship in such a way that it opens up.”
Mini's Living building, Bahne explained, will offer spaces where four, eight, or 12 people share a kitchen and a lounge area. Much like WeLive, residents will be able to take advantage of a coworking space, communal kitchens, and rooftop gardens. But the difference lies in the final layer: a space entirely open to the public that houses an exhibition area, gardens, a playground, and a food market.
‘Mini Living is keen to promote social interaction, not only among the residents themselves, but [also] with people from other parts of the city,’ the company stated in a release. Or, as Bahne puts it: “You want a place that doesn't make you live next to people who have exactly the same profile as you.”
The Shanghai complex is slated to open in either spring or summer next year. A second coworking space, inspired by A/D/O, has just opened up in Madrid and a third is in the works in "another European city." The Jing’An development will also house an area for designers and Urban-X startups.
It’s unclear how strong the financial case is for Mini in both realms of rentals. Bahne stated that although the Brooklyn A/D/O runs a sustainable restaurant and gift shop business, it’s “not here to make the brand money ... we take money for the studio spaces, but at a very competitive rate.”
“This is a space that should be there in the long run,” she said. “The key KPI is to build a space that people love and come back to time and again. Internally, a key measure is quality time spent.”
Mini Living may operate under a more traditional set of KPIs and, in a densely populated city like Shanghai, it’s highly likely to generate cash. But that's not for Bahne to speak to. She was hired to “disrupt the company from the inside” and from where she stands, that means gearing up the business to be ready for when the amount of consumers “who realize the way they’re living is up for debate” reaches critical mass.
“Now is the time to redefine how we're going to live and what that's going to look like,” she said. “Now is the opportunity for a total outsider to rethink lifestyle.”