Automaker looks to polish its image in showbiz alliance

BMW stunned Hollywood six years ago when it left the entertainment biz in its rearview mirror.

But BMW now wants to make a comeback, hiring Propaganda GEM as its global entertainment marketing agency of record.

The move comes as BMW have become the favored wheels of villains, while rivals like Audi and Mercedes-Benz have used entertainment to boost their reputations in the luxury car market since BMW’s absence.

Propaganda, which also reps Bang & Olufsen, Bulgari, Casio, Lamborghini, Nokia and Panasonic, aims to help BMW recapture control over the carmaker’s image on screen through various projects — including tie-ins with films and TV shows, musicvideos, videogames and new media. Deal also covers the BMW Group’s other brands, Mini, Rolls-Royce and BMW motorcycles.

The irony is that in landing the BMW account, Propaganda now has to sever its 13-year-relationship with Audi at the end of the year. Propaganda secured lucrative tie-ins for Audi with films like “I, Robot” and the “Iron Man” franchise over the years, helping the once-struggling brand considerably up its cool factor with consumers in the U.S. Audis prominently appear in the upcoming “Date Night,” “It’s Complicated” and “The Joneses,” as well. Audi confirmed the end of the relationship but declined to comment.

“For us, it was a matter of new challenges and looking to do things differently,” said Ruben Igielko-Herrlich, Propaganda GEM’s founding partner and co-president of the decision to end its deal with Audi. BMW “has a great understanding of the space. They have experience, but being a leader means you need to continue to innovate and explore new ground or you lose your leadership position.”

BMW and Propaganda declined to talk about specific projects they plan to move forward with, other than to say they’ll promote specific vehicles as well as brand themes like “the joys of driving” or “fuel efficiency.” “We are open to everything,” said Ralf Hussmann, head of sport marketing and corporate sponsorships for BMW. “We are definitely looking forward to lift product placement to the next level. We are a car manufacturer but we have different topics to talk about.”

Hussmann cites videogames as one area in which BMW would like to increase its presence but the company isn’t opposed to traditional tie-ins with films, that would involve product placement and additional ad dollars spent around the film to tout the appearance.

“If it makes sense, we’re interested, but it depends on the movie and on the role a car or whatever else a BMW might play,” he said.

Either way, BMW provides marketers with an important case study of what can happen to a brand that spends considerable coin to create an image for itself through entertainment: Once they’re gone, another company can take its place and steal the spotlight.

BMW generated the most buzz in 1995 when it used the Bond pic “GoldenEye” to launch the Z3 roadster. 007 would drive a BMW, instead of the usual Aston Martin, in the next two installments, “Tomorrow Never Dies” and “The World Is Not Enough.” In 2001, it bowed the action-laden BMW Film series “The Hire,” starring Clive Owen, with installments helmed by John Woo, Ang Lee, John Frankenheimer, David Fincher, Tony Scott, Joe Carnahan and Wong Kar-Wai, among others, which became a hit online. More recently, deals have been struck on a one-off basis, with flackery Rogers and Cowan planting BMWs in a few episodes of “Alias” in 2005, while marketing firm Meteor Worldwide landed several in the Michael Douglas pic “Solitary Man” this year.

Yet on screen, BMWs are mostly no longer the hero car but black sedans driven by villains that ultimately wind up getting destroyed in fiery crashes.

BMW attributes its departure from Hollywood to an executive shake up and decision to rethink its marketing strategy. Those have been the same reasons that companies like Volkswagen and Home Depot have also given in the past when they’ve pulled the plug on entertainment.

More recently, financial resources took a hit during the recession and a downturn in overall vehicle sales. BMW still doesn’t boast a major marketing budget, but it recently freed up millions by pulling out as an official sponsor of Formula One racing. It will funnel some of that back into entertainment after sponsoring the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

“We thought we should move into another direction for a couple of years,” Hussmann said. “But when we evaluated the last ten years, we came to the conclusion that we had very convincing results in the past and thought it’s smart to become active again in this field.”

The availability of more marketing dollars is always good news for studios looking for promotional partners for their films — especially when it’s become more expensive to roll out films around the world at once.

And BMW isn’t making any risky bets by tapping Propaganda. Turning to the same marketing firm that helped revamp Audi’s image is no coincidence, those close to both companies said.

In addition to its previous work, what also helped Propaganda land the BMW account is the fact that it operates 12 offices around the world, with Los Angeles, Geneva and Hong Kong serving as its primary headquarters, which will be key in rolling out BMW’s new entertainment strategy, which it sees as a global effort. Propaganda also has offices in Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow, London, Rome, Madrid, Copenhagen and is opening one in Mumbai next year.

“The recession has forced companies to rethink how they communicate,” Igielko-Herrlich said. “You have to ultimately be where the spectator is. How do you do that? You have to be part of the content, part of the storytelling.”

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