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Green Affluents: The Newest Market Segment

Futureproof brands are built on insights into future consumers. Turns out, the future of affluence exists today, and BMW is getting ready to pitch it.

My job is creating futureproof brands for clients. I believe those brands are built on sustainability, innovation, design, insight, and sociability. Among these attributes, insight has a special place. Get it right, and your brand lines up with what tomorrow’s consumers demand. Get it wrong, and you become the next Segway scooter.

I’ve often used BMW i, the new BMW sub-brand as an example of great futureproof insight. The division’s philosophy is about more than cool new cars like the BMW i3 and BMW i8 hybrids. Instead, the project is based on making mobility—not just driving—exciting in the future.

To this end, the company founded BMW i Ventures, a group that funds entrepreneurs (like ParkAtMyHouse) with groundbreaking ideas on getting around urban areas using all available transport—whether it’s the subway, a bike, or even walking.

The big insight here? With the rise of megacities, consumers will most likely drive less. But they’ll continue to search out exciting ways of getting around. By intersecting this need with BMW’s expertise in creating exciting transport, the car manufacturer is today cornering a market that to many other companies is still invisible. It’s futureproofing its brand.

A New Consumer

BMW i Brand Manager Uwe Dreher says that a surprising insight is guiding the carmaker. Dreher says that in the course of research the company conducted as part of the new sub-brand’s development process, the team discovered a group of affluent consumers—particularly in the San Francisco area—who were expressing their politics by driving seemingly downmarket cars. As Dreher said, "It seemed incongruous for someone to live in a $5 million home and drive a $35,000 Prius instead of a Porsche or Ferrari. But that’s what’s happening."

Dreher conceded these "green affluents" were a small niche. But BMW is betting they’re a strong predictor of future luxury trends. And the car maker is developing the BMW i to answer their need for authentic, sustainable driving excitement.

A Brand Built From The Ground Up

Dreher says the the decision to launch the subrabdn hinged on two points. First, being arm’s length from the master brand allowed the team to engage in a complete rethink, as opposed to incrementally changing existing BMW models. Because of this, radical innovations like an aluminum frame and carbon fiber body were incorporated.

Second, the separation from the master brand allowed BMW i to brand itself as an authentic departure from the status quo. This wasn’t just a tweak, but a new idea with integrity. A crucial consideration for consumers hypersensitive to greenwashing.

Lessons To Innovators

  1. Insight, insight, insight: The BMW i project isn’t just a flight of fancy, but a business venture grounded in the needs of consumers. What makes it exciting is that the insights are based on consumers of tomorrow.
  2. The future exists today: BMW discovered the "green affluents," even though they’re just a whisper of a demographic today. By learning how to serve this group today, the carmaker will help build a strong brand tomorrow.
  3. New brand, new momentum: BMW created BMW i as a sub-brand, unencumbered by tradition. After all, you can’t race forward if the master brand won’t let you go.

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  • Joe Scheffler

    One has to admire BMW's efforts. Their other intiative, BMW Guggenheim Labs, is also forward thinking. It allows for the brand and consumer to exchange transparent thoughts about current urban sentiments, as well as unfiltered feedback about how people see urban expansion unfolding in years to come.

  • JohnO

    Cars pollute, remember?

        Carbon monoxide

        Carbon monoxide

        Nitrogen dioxide

        Sulphur dioxide



        Polycyclic hydrocarbons


        Fine particulate matter


    People like me buy "downmarket" cars like the Prius because American cities are virtually impassable without driving. Given that we have to drive sometimes, we try to do so while screwing things as little as possible.

    But hey, if all you're interested in is helping "green affluents" assuage their materialist guilt, there's probably a buck to be made.

  • Kenny

    Driving a Prius to look like you are green is a great thing when you want the world to think you truly care. Driving a Prius to actually make the world cleaner, however, is not. I think you should do some more research on the Prius and what all goes into how it is made, and the actual fuel savings that you get from it throughout the lifetime of the Prius. A 2012 Prius will allow for an average 50mpg. Take that into consideration with all the gas and petrol that went into making it, and that 50mpg is really not saving much. Not to mention the long term durability of the Prius is not the highest. Compare that with a 1981 VW Rabbit diesel. It will allow for 55-60 mpg, took less to produce, and has a longer life. Then compare that with newer models, and the 3 cylinder diesel model will get you almost 80mpg, and took significantly less to produce. Even a 12 cylinder diesel Jaguar, will get about 45-50mpg, and likewise took less to produce than the Prius. 

    That being said, I do heartily agree that there is a lot that needs to be done to make our production methods and consumer products more environmentally friendly and socially responsible. However, it will require us to be more intelligent consumers, especially with the wildly popular "downmarket" cars. That's not to say that the car companies that make high priced luxury vehicles can't make them environmentally friendly, and in doing so give the "green affluents" some spunk to their materialist guilt, like the Porsche 918 Spyder Hybrid, which gets nearly 100mpg. It is a matter of going beyond doing things to make a buck, to doing things to make a more sustainable world community. The technology is there, so it is up to the consumers to be more savvy and put pressure on the producers to use that technology to the full advantage, and make it better.