Lifestyle

MINI's Marketing Misfire


"Webisodes" are hip. MINIs are hip. But MINI's new webisodic marketing campaign is a dud

MINI, which hardly needs to advertise at all given its runaway success in the U.S. market, has launched a Web film serial as part of the launch of the redesigned car. The "webisodes" star a talking MINI reminiscent of the 1982-86 TV show Knight Rider.

Indeed, the whole serial, titled Hammer & Coop, is meant to conjure feelings of nostalgia for old TV action shows like Starsky & Hutch and MacGyver among MINI's main audience—baby boomers and the older end of Generation X.

The departure from its previous advertising aims to inject more fun into the brand, and appeal better to men, says MINI marketing manager Trudy Hardy. In the first episode, the Hammer character escapes from a rough-looking thug, Reggie, who is after Hammer's car, "Coop," on behalf of an evil businessman.

On his way to eluding his chaser, Hammer stops at a bikini car wash where a couple of buxom babes wash the car. The second episode opens with Hammer emerging from a cheap hotel room in a comically short bathrobe, the blonde car-washer behind him.

Reggie has caught up with Hammer and pursues him in a chase. And we are introduced to the menacing businessman behind the plot. The third episode features Hammer taking out Reggie with a soda can to the head, plus a battle with a ninja. The webisodes are viewable at www.hammerandcoop.com.

There are a lot of chases in the episodes. And there are a lot of places in the story to spotlight MINI features—the push-button start, the run-flat tires, the horsepower. In that way, the films work to inform the viewer about the new product, as well as to try to entertain.

Flat Tire TV

Indeed, they try to entertain. Because former BMW marketing chief Jim McDowell is general manager of MINI USA these days, it is difficult not to compare Hammer & Coop to the BMW webisodes, The Hire, created on McDowell's watch.

The Hire, a series of stand-alone stories starring actor Clive Owen, with supporting roles played by actors including Madonna and Gary Oldham, and filmed by name directors like Guy Ritchie and Ang Lee, virtually set the standard for webisodic marketing.

Where The Hire films were slick, well-written, beautifully filmed, and engaging, the first three episodes of Hammer & Coop fall short of holding my attention. After seeing one The Hire film, I was eager to see the others. After three installments of this serial, I'm only going to remember to watch the weekly installments if someone sends me a reminder. And even then, I'm not sure.

The problem for me is that the homage to the 1970s-early '80s TV action shows is too ham-fisted. It tries to be funny, like a weak Saturday Night Live sketch that goes on too long. The British voice inside the MINI is especially unfunny and unengaging. He says "bloke" and "bloody" a lot. But the writing in the serials is awful.

Marketing Rally

MINI is a cool brand. The car looks awesome, and is a perfect evolution to what MINIs should look like. To drive one is to know that BMW engineering is behind the on-road character of the cars.

So all the more reason to wonder what McDowell was thinking when he greenlighted these films from his new ad agency, Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners. Indeed, BSS&P were responsible for a highly engaging series of short webisodes for Converse footwear that were created by amateur filmmaking fans, as well as some unknown professionals, around the Chuck Taylor sneaker line. The Hammer & Coop result makes me think the agency should have stuck with the amateur idea.

All six films, which will be rolled out over the next month, were directed by Todd Phillips (Old School, Starsky & Hutch) and star actor Bryan Callen. Over the next month, the four more webisodes will be released—in addition to a mock music video for Asia's Heat of the Moment, a popular '80s song featured in the last webisode of the series.

From Feb. 22 through Mar. 23, cinema trailers will be showing in nearly 1,900 theaters nationwide. The agency is also creating movie posters, print ads, a MySpace page, and a number of fun accessories for purchase online—including iron-on logos for T-shirts, vintage lunchboxes, and gear inspired by the series.

Starting this month, Hammer & Coop will have a solid presence on popular online sites Second Life, MySpace, and YouTube. The characters will be incorporated into Second Life's "online society" on Mar. 15, and the trailer and video components will be available on YouTube after Feb. 20.

"For the next six weeks, as the webisodes launch and more of the plot is revealed, audiences will get to know the real story behind Hammer & Coop," says Hardy. "The goal is to effectively engage consumers in the brand by offering an ongoing, interactive dialogue that will keep them coming back for more and interested in future MINI projects."

Premium Exposure

The webisodes are leading the launch of the 2007 MINI, which is a new design. The original new MINI launched in the U.S. in 2002.

From the beginning, MINI has eschewed traditional TV advertising and has instead relied more on print, outdoor, Internet, and unconventional guerilla marketing tactics. The original MINI had a business plan that called for selling around 20,000 per year in the U.S. But the success of the car's design vaulted it well beyond those conservative sales targets to nearly 40,000 last year. Indeed, it has established a new category in the auto industry: premium-priced small car. Its success has spurred Volvo and Audi to launch their own entries.

The March issues of popular men's magazines Maxim, Stuff, and Blender will feature Hammer & Coop in an eight-page fashion spread, styled and shot by world-famous fashion director Stan Williams. In addition, Premiere magazine has created a faux cover for its March issue, including five pages of editorial coverage written and designed by magazine staff.

There is apparently no end to what "lifestyle" magazines will do to attract ad dollars. And for the first time in the magazine's history, Men's Health will integrate the campaign into their widely read monthly workout poster.

There's also an outdoor campaign in three major markets: a mannequin of Hammer "parachuting" in and hanging from billboards and a full-scale fiberglass version of a MINI. Traditional billboard ads are running in 80 markets showing the two characters under headlines such as "Kick Some Asphalt."

Campaign That Doesn't Connect

MINI marketing has been at its best in the past when, for example, at launch, Ford (F) Excursions rolled around cities with MINIs on their roofs. Another winning idea was placing the car inside sports arenas in spaces created by removing seats rather than parked outside or in the refreshment tunnels. The MINI Web site provided a file that could be printed, and the pages would enable the consumer to dress as a MINI for Halloween.

Where the Hammer & Coop idea breaks down is that building a campaign around a parody of something else is not original. The whole idea seems to be at odds with the strength and soul of the brand.

And the retro theme seems to fight the emphasis on new media and content distribution. On one hand, you have the filmmaker poking fun at a TV genre, in a not terribly funny way, that isn't too relevant to the younger, hipper audience MINI is hoping to interest. And there are considerable alternative media—MySpace, YouTube, Second Life—that presumably they do find relevant.

Brand Blunder

I find "Britishness" one of the enduring charms of the MINI. O.K., how British can it be if German carmaker BMW owns the brand and engineered the cars? Don't forget, Kaiser Wilhelm was Queen Victoria's grandson. So far, the nod to MINI's Britishness is the accented voice in Hammer & Coop's talking car, which seems badly cast and badly scripted.

Webisodic marketing is part of a crucial trend toward advertisers creating engaging content rather than interruptive ad messages. And MINI has been a leader in this transformation of the ad and marketing business. But the first hurdle to making brand content successful is actually getting the creative idea correct in the first place. Even if the distribution of this idea is executed perfectly, I am arguing that it's a bad idea and a total miss for this special and successful brand.


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