‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Wasn’t Too Spicy for Audi Partnership

Audi found itself in a touchy situation when Universal Pictures announced plans to produce a film based on “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

The German automaker’s luxury cars get showy shoutouts throughout E.L. James’ steamy book — to the point where its vehicles are plot points. It was James’ creative decision, the way Stephenie Meyer had so prominently written Volvos into her “Twilight” series.

In fact, the cars are a signature element of business tycoon Christian Grey’s high-end lifestyle, alongside his private jet and helicopter.

The sexual situations and much-discussed scenes of bondage would have turned off many marketers. Yet for Audi, pop culture has played a key role in how the company connects with consumers.

After scoring with the “Transformers” films, and Marvel Studios’ superhero adventures by having Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark drive an R8 sports car the way James Bond drives an Aston Martin, Audi has been able to significantly raise its profile while increasing sales at the same time.

With “Fifty Shades,” “there was some trepidation,” admits Loren Angelo, director of marketing for Audi of America, who is responsible for Audi’s overall brand image in the U.S.

Angelo will take part in a keynote conversation on April 10 at Variety’s Massive: The Entertainment Marketing Summit held at the Four Seasons at Los Angeles in Beverly Hills. Other speakers include Michelle Hooper, exec VP, marketing, Fox Searchlight, and Ricky Strauss, president, marketing, the Walt Disney Studios.

Any concerns Audi had quickly vanished when it started examining the popularity of the “Fifty Shades” series and started listening to the chatter surrounding the novels. With over 45 million copies of the first book winding up in the hands of readers, “it became this cultural phenomenon,” Angelo says. “There was clearly a line in which you had to be cautious in your communication (supporting the film) but we as a brand were clearly represented in this world of high-end modern luxury.”

That was something Audi just couldn’t ignore — in addition to the demands by James that Universal ensure that Audi appear in the film, as part of her tight creative control over the production and its potential sequels.

With “Fifty Shades” earning $559 million at the worldwide box office, offering up its R8, as well as the A7 and A3 sedans, to the production was clearly a risk worth taking. So was producing several online films that were tied to “Fifty Shades,” including a humorous short, which has been viewed more than 3 million times, with “Saturday Night Live’s” Vanessa Bayer.

“We’ve made our brand very strong in the U.S. by aligning with cultural phenomenons,” Angelo says. “It’s what sets you apart in a moment and time.”

Up next: A showy integration in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Audi, however, sees films as a component of its overall Hollywood strategy.

Its vehicles also regularly appear in ABC’s “Modern Family,” and the film and TV version of “The Transporter,” for example.

“The television and movie space have been a tremendous platform to reach audiences and raise the awareness about what Audi is on a national and global scale,” Angelo says.

Yet Audi also has embraced other pop culture events like the Golden Globes and the Emmys, the latter through its association with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. It has long kicked off both events with celebrity-studded pre-parties and red carpet placements that show off the company’s products.

In addition, it sponsors Elton John’s annual Oscars party and fundraiser for AIDS research and has backed the AFI Film Festival for the past 12 years.

To make all of that activity pay off, however, takes more than just a logo on a step-and-repeat board or a commercial during a broadcast.

Over the years, Audi has cleverly turned to PMK BNC to produce short films featuring talent like Claire Danes, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto, that were distributed on YouTube and other platforms and tapped into the awards shows, the return of “Homeland” or the release of a “Star Trek” film.

Audi isn’t expected to put its entertainment strategy in park anytime soon.

“When you look back at the growth of the Audi brand over the past eight years, it’s very much paralleled with our integrations and relationships in the Hollywood community,” Angelo says. “We exemplify what Audi stands for — a progressive modern brand — with the partnerships we develop.”

Naturally, Audi is using entertainment as a way to promote its products. Audi was the world’s second most popular luxury brand, behind BMW, with sales increasing 10.5% in 2014.

Stateside, it will look to boost numbers by using the Emmys this year to promote its new A3 e-tron hybrid, for example, the way it used the show and Super Bowl commercials to tout its diesel engines in the past.
As for a return to “Fifty Shades,” with a planned sequel, “we’ll have to see where the conversation goes with the studio,” Angelo says. “The elevator door is not closed on that just yet.” Pun intended. “We don’t have anything to say just yet.”

If Audi left “Fifty Shades” — or passed on the next Marvel film — it would open up the opportunity for another luxury brand to step in.

“With many of these programs, there’s a level of consistency that you want to have,” Angelo says. “You want to be there for audiences over and over again to make sure your brand has the right level of awareness. It drives the message home.”

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