The big bash that kicked off Emmy week wasn’t thrown by a major TV network or production company, but by automaker Audi.
Sunday’s celebration at Cecconi’s, which attracted the casts of “Modern Family” and “Glee,” was the German luxury brand’s latest effort to turn Hollywood’s spotlights onto its newer vehicles — while stealing some of the attention away from rival Infiniti, the Emmys’ official car sponsor.
In fact, Audi has spent the past three years essentially taking over Hollywood, sending fleets of vehicles to chauffeur talent to the red carpets of the Oscars, Golden Globes and premieres; locking down long-term sponsorship deals with the AFI film fest; producing full-length features of its own; loaning cars to celebs in the hopes they’ll be photographed by paparazzi; hosting intimate dinners with influencers; and placing product in high-profile pics like the “Iron Man” franchise.
Less money, more mileage
Compared to other automakers, Audi has long been forced to work with a smaller marketing budget; as a result, it had to be a little more creative than its competitors.
“We know we get outspent sometimes three-to-one, sometimes five-to-one, and that forces us to be smarter,” Scott Keogh, chief marketing officer of Audi USA, told Daily Variety. “But if you’re trying to influence consumers and get people to rally around your cars, hammering it home day in and day out with ads isn’t going to make that happen. It needs to be more real and authentic.”
In Audi’s case, that meant making sure to send as many of its vehicles as it could to Hollywood to let them represent the brand. At the same time, the events parties have been lavish, but not budget-busting affairs.
The big draw was Hollywood itself, with one high-profile appearance at a major press-covered media event or in a movie guaranteed to make the rounds around the world to auds who can’t get enough of what happens in L.A. A single tentpole can put a brand in front of nearly 100 million moviegoers, given the right kind of screen time.
“You can come into one market and impact hundreds of people, and when you do that, it’s a very efficient way to impact the world,” Keogh said. “We always knew we had the products. What we really needed to do was get more people to know that and get people behind that.”
So far so good.
Through July, global sales are up for the year by 17% over 2009, with Audi posting record numbers in the U.S., up 27%. In China, that figure’s an astonishing 149%. And that’s being done without having to lower sticker prices like other carmakers. In Los Angeles, a town known for loving its BMWs, market share has doubled in the last several years.
Sales of Audi’s TDI clean diesel cars and SUVs have also grown, thanks to the exposure of the technology in Hollywood.
“The assumption was that this technology was not ready for America and Americans wouldn’t use diesel,” Keogh said. “We got the cars in the right hands and now it’s been in the marketplace for two years. We still have next to zero supply. It’s been an absolute success.”
Not all of those sales can be attributed to Audi’s entertainment endeavors, of course. Its cars and SUVs have all been redesigned or launched as brand new entries that have garnered critical praise.
Audi is hardly the only marketer that’s taken advantage of the appeal of entertainment as a sales tool. But its been more aggressive than most.
Its marketing team saw how stars were able to reinvent themselves with a hit or two, and Audi saw itself in need of a similar turnaround after being nearly scared away from the U.S. market in the late 1980s by runaway acceleration problems similar to those that recently plagued Toyota. The buzz was so bad, it’s taken about 15 years for Audi to rebound.
While its newer cars and SUVs have helped significantly, Audi realized, with its limited marketing resources, that it still needed to figure out a way to get its vehicles in front of consumers.
This year alone, that’s meant throwing the pre-Emmy bash, as well as a pre-Golden Globes party with Anna Paquin at the Sunset Tower Hotel, and pre-Academy Awards event at Cecconi’s with Camilla Belle that celebrated red-carpet fashions by design house Marchesa. A long unavoidable line of Q7s (its largest SUV) regularly appeared in front of premieres, and the Oscars, to promote its clean diesel TDIs. It also sponsored the red-carpet launch of Marvel and Paramount’s “Iron Man 2.”
It returned for a seventh year to sponsor the AFI Fest (last year offering free tickets) and it unspooled its own docu, “Truth in Motion: The U.S. Ski Team’s Road to Vancouver,” on NBC as part of a tie-in with the Winter Olympics. Pic was a follow-up to a doc it produced around Audi’s winning streak at the 24-hour-long Le Mans race in France.
In addition, its longtime loaners to talent in L.A. and New York paid off, with Zac Efron, for example, routinely winding up in magazines and on blogs with his S5.
The company’s awareness effort started in 2006. But Audi has upped its exposure considerably over the years by wisely pairing with tentpoles like the “Iron Man” franchise, in which the superhero’s alter ego Tony Stark drives the company’s R8 supercar. It’s the same car that showed up in the comedy “Date Night” and last year’s “Transformers” sequel and was used to sell the Xbox 360 racing game “Forza Motorsport 3.”
The automaker started taking placements seriously around 2004, after Audi unveiled a futuristic concept car in the Will Smith vehicle “I, Robot,” and “The Transporter” series made its sedans a co-star.
Keogh didn’t want to follow the traditional guidelines adopted by most marketing and PR teams. “There are just more opportunities out there,” he said. “It liberated us in our thinking and got us recognized as a result.”
The irony is that Propaganda GEM, the entertainment marketing shop that brokered the major product placements, has since dropped Audi for BMW and aims to use entertainment as a vehicle to turn around that automaker’s image the way it helped its former client. Ever since BMW produced its much-praised BMW Films series, earlier this decade, the company has remained mostly invisible in the entertainment biz; its cars are preferred mostly by villains in movies and TV shows and wind up getting destroyed in fiery crashes.
Although talks are under way with several shops, Audi has yet to hire a new product placement agency since Propaganda ankled earlier this year.
It may need to act fast. It’s starting to face some fierce competition for face time, and not just from BMW; luxury brands like Acura, Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and General Motors’ Cadillac are stepping up their entertainment efforts. Acura has already made sure its shield-grilled fleet is driven by S.H.I.E.L.D agents in next summer’s “Thor.”
Its renewed success has enabled Audi to start loosening its marketing purse strings. It upped its marketing budget from $30 million in 2007 to $40 million in 2008. It increased another 20% last year.
It’s used that money to start buying ads during the Super Bowl in ’08, ’09 and this year, and sponsored a party in Miami. It will be back during the 2011 match up.
Even that first spot paid homage to Hollywood, mimicking the horse head scene from “The Godfather.” In the second, Jason Statham, in a series of action sequences, trashes a BMW, Mercedes and Lexus until he figures out an Audi is the perfect getaway car. Statham has become a regular Audi pitchman, piloting its sedans in “The Transporter” films, and narrating the Le Mans docu.
Overseas, Justin Timberlake is Audi’s brand ambassador, recently starring in the web series “The Next Big Thing,” to promote the new smaller A1 in Europe. And Audis appear in the comedy “Friends with Benefits,” which the thesp is lensing now.
The question is whether to continue relying on entertainment as a marketing tool. There’s always a threat that another automaker could step in the way Hyundai has taken over the Oscars from GM.
“It’s had a huge impact,” Keogh said. “It’s something that’s efficient, it’s something that’s smart and something that works. It’s something we want to continue to do.”