For one of the world’s premier automotive companies it’s never about the hard sell. “What can I do to get you into this car today?” is a question that’s never asked. Rather the ethos of BMW has always been about connecting with buyers where they live letting them fall in love with the brand by driving the product—and then stepping out of the equation confident that the target will come back on their own terms. And as every marketer knows: when they do they’re yours for life.
To get that live connection and foster a communication that not only pushes a real-time test-drive but ignites the all-important “long-term relationship” so many marketers are trying to strike one of the world’s most powerful automotive brands is leaning more and more… on live events. A high-touch engagement-based portfolio of event programs blends established but evolving traveling tours with new platforms of targeted efforts. At the center of it all is lead-generation of course but for BMW it’s all about translating the art of driving the machine into an experience that acts as a customer magnet. “It’s not about the events themselves but about creating experiences ” says vp-marketing Jack Pitney. Exactly.
Truth be told the company’s first foray into event marketing came out of its participation in the Olympic Torch Relay in the weeks leading up to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. BMW transformed local dealerships into beehives of activity hosting community celebrations as the torch caravan passed through town. The program literally spawned a new internal corporate focus on events with a special tilt toward community involvement. “The Olympic effort gave us a lot of key learnings ” says BMW manager-consumer events Thomas Salkowsky. “One of which is to connect people to our products and to dealers within their communities with a very consistent message.”
It’s tantamount to a complete transformation. Previously there was no consistent national event marketing strategy. Events were regionally based and more fragmented in nature. No more. They are now a cornerstone of BMW’s marketing approach according to Pitney and the company has increased its investment each year as part of a global mandate. “In the last dozen years there has been a significant investment on BMW’s behalf globally and domestically to engage consumers and prospects with our brand experientially ” Pitney says.
The event portfolio encompasses the evergreen (12 years runnin’ and counting folks) traveling 10-month Ultimate Drive for Susan G. Komen for the Cure in which consumers test-drive BMWs and the company donates one dollar for every mile driven to the popular charity as well as the Ultimate Driving Experience in which participants test their driving skills on a closed course with a professional driver at their side. Then there are the golf yachting and motorsports sponsorships. Not to mention the hefty auto show circuit. And then some.
All told BMW events reach more than 15 million consumers annually. Around 80 000 to 100 000 people will take an event-related test drive. This year the company will conduct 350 events including 200 Ultimate Drives which has been expanded into additional markets. There will also be between eight and 12 test-drive-based Ultimate Driving Experiences 80 amateur golf cups (up from 40 last year) and the BMW Championship at Belle Rive Country Club in St. Louis. There are regional events too which can be tailored to specific markets. Put it all together and you’ve got a strategy that embraces experiential as the ultimate way to make that essential connection with the luxury consumer.
“That’s the business we are in to create experiences for those who are interested ” says Salkowsky. “BMW as a brand has always been a very experiential company because to really appreciate and value what our machines are about and to really understand the engineering and the attention to detail that goes into the automobiles requires you to drive them. I can tell you all about it and I can send you a 30-page white paper about our suspension systems but the light bulb that goes on when people get behind the wheel and start driving—that is the ‘aha’ moment.”
Shifting Into Drive
Salkowsky is the steward of that mission. It is his job along with an in-house team of five to fuel the flames of BMW consumers’ enthusiasm and curiosity about the brand. He does so at a time and in an arena that is ever more cluttered with marketing messages and experiences by other car companies that have jumped on the live bandwagon.
His job also in part is to help the company sell cars which means gathering contact names gauging consumers’ purchase intent and their impressions of the brand pre- during and post-event then ultimately landing a sale. But the big picture strategy is much more nuanced than one person or one sale. “We are a brand that at the end of the day offers premium vehicles for a segment of the marketplace and one of the ways in which we are ranked is by sales ” he admits. “That is an important factor but it is not the only factor.”
Which events in Salkowsky’s portfolio raise brand awareness? Which are for prospecting? Owner loyalty? He says a little of each ingredient combines to create what Salkowsky calls his “secret sauce ” a recipe that he is using to take events to the next level.
“We don’t segment ” he insists. “We are not putting on a spreadsheet ‘Let’s do X event for brand building and Y for conquesting.’”
When it comes to information gathering and follow-ups BMW has been taking its cue from consumers since that very first Olympic run in which it reached millions of people in thousands of communities and which gave birth to its event marketing strategy—and some flagship events that endure to this day.
The Ultimate Drive now in its 12th year and aiming to achieve a total cumulative contribution of more than $12 million was the first major event platform to develop out of the initial Olympic platform. Like that effort the grassroots fundraising program moves from one dealer to the next day after day four to six days weekly across the country. This year it began in February and will end in December.
Participating dealers pay $4 500 to have the corporate team arrive this year with a fleet of 25 new vehicles that will be driven every half-hour for about 10 hours straight. The team sends out “white” mail (yes it’s snail mail but for many consumers it’s more personal) and email invitations handles registration then at day’s end packs up and heads on to the next dealer. This year there will be more vehicles showcased including the new M3 the Alpina B7 the new 1 Series the X6 the M3 coupe sedan and convertible and advanced diesel models not to mention the X6 Signature Car a specially designed pink and white vehicle that participants sign after completing their test drive.
Also for sale: BMW’s Pink Ribbon merchandise a collection of caps mugs water bottles and other items that adds $200 000 to $250 000 to Komen’s coffers. There is a tie-in with a local Susan G. Komen affiliate in which a local Komen hero who can either be a survivor a doctor or a nurse is honored with a plaque.
Dealers promote the event locally and offer additional goodies like breakfast or lunch and even door prizes. Sales people are in abundance ready to answer questions and looking for leads. “It really is a great combination of getting people to drive BMWs and helping the Komen foundation ” says Christina Dawkins owner Co’s BMW Center in Loveland CO which has participated every year but the first and will host another next month.
Dawkins follows up with thank-you notes to drivers and eventually sells between four to five cars from the effort. “Someone may not be ready at that time but they get interested ” she says. “Eventually they come and see us and buy one.”
Kate Hicks business manager at BMW of Montgomery AL estimates her dealership will sell about five cars through the event which was held in mid-March. This year she raised $4 475 up from $3 100 last year from 70 participants who went on 176 test drives despite the pouring rain.
Besides the sales she considers the event a long-term community investment. “It’s powerful when you see the faces of the people on the Signature car and all the signatures ” she says. “It was a wonderful and moving experience.”
Other pay-offs: The drives draw media coverage for the Komen organization and the dealers. And it’s a buzz-builder: Salkowsky estimates nearly 80 percent of participants each year are new.
The Komen drives led to BMW’s second successful and still ongoing event platform—the Ultimate Driving Experience which began in 1998. The Experience takes place at a large racetrack or parking lot and boasts an autocross course with cones. A professional driver riding in the passenger seat offers driving tips such as keep your eyes up and your hands on the wheel. Participants get to drive the latest BMWs and competitive vehicles doing their own mental balance sheet of plusses and minuses along the way.
“Our research shows that our consumers very much want to drive the cars and they don’t want to be pressured for a sale. Their ultimate goal is to come out and drive as many BMWs as they can ” Salkowsky says. “If you’re in the market for an automobile that makes sense. It’s like if you go into the Apple Store to look at a new computer. You just want to play with the Mac and not be hassled. We always remember that point of view.”
The no-charge program takes about two hours and usually concludes with a wrap-up ceremony and small gift or prize. Teens can participate in a student driver program as part of the event.
Keeping It Fresh
Long-running events such as these have given BMW a leg up when it comes to connecting with high-end consumers in a meaningful way. Keeping them fresh year-after-year is another issue. “We constantly debate argue and strategize about how to keep things fresh and raise the benchmark even if that is just against ourselves ” Salkowsky says. “And we constantly challenge our agency partners to create memorable and unique experiences.” (The brand’s team leverages Norwalk CT-based Octagon for all consumer programs except its Formula BMW initiative.)
Take the Susan G. Komen Ultimate Drives for example. “The core program has remained consistent but the bells whistles the enhancements trying different things whether it be a different model focus different ways to engage the local Komen affiliates different ways for the dealers to reach out to the community—those have all evolved over time ” says John Shea executive vp-consulting at Octagon. “We’ve been able to attract 80 percent new people each year. The year-over-year challenge is more internal than it is external. That being said there is always room for improvement in ways we communicate to the participants how we engage the dealers how we work with local Komen affiliates.”
Over time the merchandise program has evolved to include fashionable pieces that have been featured in InStyle magazine. The vehicles are decorated to reinforce different messages each year. One year BMW added a Wall of Support that featured panels that could be bought for $5 on which participants could add a message.
The company also continues to tweak and expand its sports associations namely motorsport yachting and golf all viable avenues for reaching its affluent well-educated active target. Globally it participates in Formula 1 racing; domestically it participates in Formula BMW Americas (a smaller version of a Formula 1 car) and the company just announced it will reenter production car racing in the U.S. with the BMW M3. In sailing it is engaged in America’s Cup racing with the BMW Oracle team.
Last year BMW offered fans the chance to bid via an online auction on eBay for the 18th man position on the BMW Oracle racing yacht. The highest bidder received a four-day three-night trip in May to Valencia Spain including round-trip airfare to participate in the fourth race of the Louis Vuitton Cup Semifinals. The winner also received $1 000 in spending money and a luxury Girard-Perregaux watch. All proceeds went to Komen.
But golf rates highest as a sports passion so besides an amateur golf program that it has supported for more than 20 years BMW sponsors four professional tournaments worldwide. This includes premium events in Asia Germany the U.K. and the U.S. such as the BMW Championship the third in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoff series which took place last September at Chicago’s tony Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont IL. All are designed to build brand awareness and raise BMW’s profile among current and potential owners. BMW owners received free tickets and perks such as valet parking and entrée into an exclusive hospitality pavilion.
BMW’s auto show strategy likewise has evolved over time. This year the company will exhibit at 30 shows more than it has in the past including the big four—Chicago Detroit Los Angeles and New York City—as well as smaller markets such as Atlanta Dallas Houston Miami and San Francisco. With 14 million consumers attending auto shows annually across the U.S. and more than 4 000 journalists in Detroit alone the auto shows are always a big deal.
“Because of the number of consumers who come to the shows as well as the media who attend auto shows are a great platform to launch new products ” says Alex Schmuck national auto shows and exhibitions manager at BMW. “They also allow us to position the car the way we want to in a controlled environment since the floor space is ours to sculpt as we wish.”
While other auto companies bring in entertainment and celebrities for their auto show unveilings at BMW the car is the star. “We have a very structured and traditional way of unveiling the cars ” Schmuck says. “Our chairman speaks about what it took to develop it the technical and performance aspects.” Interactive displays with video monitors explain the new technology in layman’s terms. Another display case touts BMW’s support of the Evan Scholar Foundation which awards college scholarships to deserving golf caddies. The BMW stand in Los Angeles measured 16 000 square feet in size and it displayed 15 to 17 cars in a soft sell environment. “There is some sales staff on the floor but there is no sales pressure ” Schmuck says (Czarnowski Atlanta handles).
And new programs are introduced as well like the BMW Earth Lounge housed in a dome-shaped tent designed to look like the planet. It’s an exhibit that articulates BMW’s Hydrogen 7 story a new fuel-efficient model that runs on hydrogen rather than gasoline. It also communicates the company’s corporate sustainability and efficient dynamics messaging. Earth Lounge made its U.S. debut at the BMW Championship and was at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for nearly two months during the most recent Atlantis Launch.
Every event offers a chance to capture valuable information for developing and maintaining ties with current customers and prospects. “We are constantly gathering information from consumers ” Salkowsky explains. “Some of it is through our registration process which we try to make as easy and seamless as possible prior to arriving at the event. During the event we look for those moments where we can exceed expectations and offer a surprise to a consumer and make that experience more fun for them. Post-event if the consumer is interested in continuing the dialogue we want to foster that and encourage that and do it quickly.”
Follow-up includes email which is easy and cost-effective but not as premium as receiving an actual letter signed personally by someone from BMW. “We go with a white mail approach and if they are interested we will have the dealer follow up ” Salkowsky says.
After an event BMW measures these consumer impressions and gauges whether a consumer went to a dealership or responded to an email. Golfers who take a test drive get a new Scotty Cameron putter as a thank you and a continued dialogue if they want it. “Part of it is a real balance between monitoring brand impressions practical sales objectives as well as creating and defining what a unique BMW experience is ” Salkowsky says.
The event team regularly monitors the number of test drives consumers take how many leads are forwarded to dealers and ultimately how many conversions to sales the events achieve making adjustments along the way based on feedback from dealers consumers and his own staff.
“The one thing that becomes painfully obvious after all of these years is that we don’t know all the answers ” Salkowsky says. “You need to continuously mold and craft the experience to make it valuable to consumers. We don’t have all the answers we pose questions and continue to strive to build the best premium unique experience we can.”
It all boils down to a strategy that is straightforward in its simplicity and prestigious in its appeal. “We are very concentrated in our approach ” Salkowsky says. “We don’t want to waste [consumers’] time. If the consumer wants more information we will forward their information to the dealer in a timely manner and the dealer will follow up. If they indicate they are in the market for a luxury vehicle in the next six months we will invite them to more events maybe the New York Auto Show in March the Ultimate Driving Experience in May then the Ultimate Drive for Susan G. Komen in August. We just keep engaging those consumers and when their time to purchase comes around they will have had multiple BMW experiences that are premium that they can go back to.” And that ultimately will help drive them to buy a BMW car.
Salkowsky won’t reveal his event and sponsorship budget but says the number is growing paralleling the trend away from traditional media. “That trend supports our move toward non-traditional ways to communicate to target audiences ” he says. “In that sense it is a good thing. But the downside to it is like any competitive landscape. It doesn’t guarantee success. Now there are more people doing what you have been doing. So you have to be more clever more focused and more disciplined.”
BMW is up to the challenge. “We know who we are targeting with certain events and it will differ regionally and from event to event and we measure those individuals and their involvement with the brand on a weekly and monthly basis ” Salkowsky says. “It’s not all about ‘did we sell a car or will we sell a car in a week or month?’ It’s more about brand impressions and an experience that we’re creating for a consumer. Some people may not fully understand what the brand stands for and what it is about what our history and our heritage is and what the core messages are that we’re communicating. It is our responsibility to share with them what BMW is all about and introduce them to our brand.”
Salkowsky also pushes the events to generate word of mouth. “One of our goals is to get people who come to an event to go to their office on Monday and tell their coworkers what they did over the weekend ” he explains. “That viral component while difficult to measure is important as well as measured p.r. media and things like that.”
After all there’s nothing quite like the feeling of driving a luxury vehicle—the solid click of the door the whir of the engine the caress of the leather. And that’s what BMW wants its customers—and potential ones—to experience.