In 2002, BMW produced a series of eight short films (averaging about ten minutes each) exclusively for web users. This web-only short film series was a unique marketing experiment by BMW. All eight films featured popular filmmakers from across the globe and highlighted the performance aspects of various BMW automobiles. More than 11 million viewers tuned in to watch these films and over 2 million registered at BMW website and vast majority of users, registered to the site, sent film links to their friends and family. In next four years, these videos generated over 100 million views!
What is even more remarkable is that BMW launched and successfully executed this campaign despite the fact that there wasn’t a mass market content streaming platform such as YouTube back then.
After the series began, BMW saw their 2001 sales numbers go up 12% from the previous year. The films proved to be so popular that BMW ended up producing a free DVD for the customers who visited certain BMW dealerships. This small marketing campaign significantly improved dealer traffic.
BMW Films – Campaign Execution
BMW films were one of the early viral marketing attempts. These films were not some advertising videos produced by BMW. They were passive in terms of brand advertising. For example, you can replace the BMW car in any of the films by another brand, but core story still made sense. These films made a strong emotional connection with the viewers regardless of their affinity to BMW brand. Besides, these films very cleverly have a central character called The Driver who “helped people through difficult circumstances using deft driving skills-in a prominent.” The whole idea was to project the “Ultimate Driving Machine” image to support the release of new BMW vehicles.
While this viral marketing effort was unproven and untested at the time of conception, there were few things BMW knew about its customers that spurred them to create this campaign. For example, BMW discovered that approximately 85% of their customers researched the vehicles online before purchasing them. According to an article by Tom Hespos, the films were the basis for a hugely successful viral campaign, almost all of the people who downloaded the movies recommended them to other people.
Focus on Building Brand Equity
The BMW Films project was one of those moments when an advertising campaign was so powerful that it didn’t need an established platform to work. BMW successfully promoted its brand and the particular Z4 product that was at the heart of the promotion. People took the underlying message to heart and walked away with a very positive deep brand experience.
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In 2000 Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) posted total sales of $33 billion, a slight decrease from its 1999 earnings of $34 billion. Afraid of further backsliding, the Bavarian automaker decided to reshape its advertising to better target the Internet-savvy BMW customer. Before 2001 the company’s advertisements had typically consisted of product-driven campaigns with immaculate BMWs clinging to mountain roads. BMW asked its longtime advertising partner, Fallon Worldwide, to create something different. In 2001 five action-packed short films emerged under the campaign title ‘‘The Hire,’’ which became one of the most acclaimed campaigns in advertising history.
After working with BMW to develop the idea of a James Bond-type hero who drove various BMWs, Fallon enlisted David Fincher’s film-production company, Anonymous Content. Fincher then successfully wrangled some of Hollywood’s biggest guns—including directors Guy Ritchie and John Frankenheimer and actors Madonna, Forrest Whittaker, and Mickey Rourke—to create the five short films. Three more films were created in 2002 to promote BMW’s new Z4 roadster. All eight starred Clive Owen (Croupier, The Bourne Identity) as the ‘‘hired’’ driver who found himself driving a BMW in every spot. ‘‘The Hire’’ was promoted much like a feature film would have been, with movie trailers, print ads, and Web ads.
The five initial films cost an estimated $15 million, and the three made in 2002 cost about $10 million. ‘‘The Hire’’ catapulted BMW’s exposure into film festivals, awards shows, and even an exclusive BMW DirecTV channel. By 2002 BMW sales were up 17 percent, while some of its competitors, such as Volkswagen and General Motors, floundered. By June 2003 more than 45 million people had viewed the films, overshooting the original goal of reaching 2 million viewers. ‘‘The Hire’’ garnered numerous ad industry awards. The campaign’s final spot, ‘‘Beat the Devil,’’ aired November 21, 2002.
BMW, founded in Germany in 1913, awarded most of its advertising work to the Minneapolis-based agency Fallon in the mid-1990s. Three different BMW/Fallon campaigns preceding ‘‘The Hire’’ had mostly consisted of ‘‘hard-driving, product-focused efforts designed to show what it’s like behind the wheel of a BMW,’’ Jim McDowell, vice president of marketing at BMW North America, told Advertising Age. BMW and Fallon felt their campaigns’ flavor had been so overused by competitors that the original uniqueness had washed out. Wanting to launch a more unprecedented campaign, BMW asked Fallon for something new, but Fallon’s creatives felt confined within the restraints of traditional television spots. They wanted to show BMWs for longer periods of time and to truly push BMW’s performance to the point of damaging the car, which was something unheard of for a car commercial. ‘‘In response to our plea,’’ Bildsten said in an interview with Shoot, ‘‘[BMW] sent us this letter that was just amazing. They were telling us, ‘Take off the gloves. Do whatever you want. We want you to really stretch.’ ’’ After finishing a Timex campaign that included the use of video clips in Internet advertising, David Carter and Joe Sweet, two of Fallon’s art directors, were eager to try different filming techniques. ‘‘One night I challenged [Carter and Sweet] to come up with something cinematic,’’ Bildsten told Brandweek. ‘‘They came back the next morning with the whole idea almost completely worked out.’’ When they took it to BMW, ‘‘it took us about 30 minutes to present and 10 seconds for them to give us a green light.’’
‘‘The Hire’’ largely arose from Fallon and BMW’s growing concern that past campaigns had been missing the company’s target audience: well-to-do, high-achieving males who usually researched purchases using the Internet and lacked the time to watch network television. Research showed that consumers inclined to purchase BMWs were also broadband-connected, tech-savvy males and that 85 percent of this population studied BMW’s cars online before even stepping into a showroom. As far as whom the campaign would appeal to, McDowell explained to Advertising Age, ‘‘We would have guessed that our central tendency would have been 25-year-olds, but actually from our early measurements we got people older and more affluent than that.’’ Knowing that the mature target audience was keener on the viewing experience than on the interactive experience, Fallon purposely avoided using gaming software on the campaign’s website, http://www.bmwfilms.com. To study the effectiveness of ‘‘The Hire,’’ BMW and Fallon devised units of measurement called ‘‘BMW minutes,’’ which calculated how much time viewers spent with the new Internet campaign compared to previous television campaigns. ‘‘We were astonished to discover that a major fraction of the total BMW minutes were Internet minutes,’’ McDowell told Advertising Age. Males made up 68 percent of the viewers, 42 percent of whom came from households with incomes greater than $75,000. The second suite of ‘‘The Hire’’ films featured BMW’s new Z4 roadster, which aimed at a demographic that could hopefully afford them. In late 2002 BMW began running its eight films on an exclusive BMW channel for DirecTV. The channel, which was available for a limited time, interspersed the films with behindthe-scenes footage and special ‘‘subplot’’ spots.
Mercedes-Benz, the German luxury arm of DaimlerChrysler, was the top-selling luxury brand in the United States in 1999, a position it maintained until losing ground to BMW and to Toyota’s Lexus in 2002. For the same year’s first 10 months Mercedes units sold dropped by 1,500, losing out to BMW’s incredible 17 percent sales growth that year. ‘‘Mercedes has been improving its quality but it hasn’t been keeping pace with the rest of the U.S. industry,’’ Brian Walters, director of quality research at J.D. Power and Associates, explained to Bloomberg News. In an attempt to reproduce BMW’s campaign success, Mercedes’s London-based ad agency, Campbell Doyle Dye, faked a movie trailer for a supposed upcoming film called Lucky Star. Never admitting to be just an advertisement, the movie ‘‘trailer’’ broke in U.K. movie theaters July 4, 2002. Lucky Star pretended to be the next release from producer Michael Mann (The Aviator, Collateral) and portrayed Benicio Del Toro as a man acting independently to clean up Chicago’s commodities exchange. The spot periodically showed Del Toro masterfully speeding through Chicago in a $90,000 Mercedes 500 SL.
Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus luxury division rose up to be the luxury-car industry leader, selling more units than BMW or Mercedes in 2001. Besides the sales success, Lexus dominated as the most reliable in its industry; according to J.D. Power and Associates, Lexus cars had fewer than half of the problems, after four and five years, that the average cars and trucks had. In 2001 Lexus decreased its ad spending. By 2002 the carmaker’s ad agency, California-based Team One Advertising, had focused its efforts on the remodeled ES300 sedan.
SUBPLOTS IN ‘‘THE HIRE’’
Short subplots, which loosely linked the campaign’s first five storylines, were filmed quickly, and with a digital video camera, by Ben Younger and Director of Photography William Rexer. The filming of one scene, which looked like a real-life occurrence to most onlookers, involved a ‘‘car thief’’ slamming a ‘‘hit man’’ onto a car hood in New York. ‘‘Some of the reactions I got from people who weren’t real extras were so good that we had to hunt people down [to get permission to include them in the films],’’ Younger said in an interview with Shoot magazine. ‘‘I loved the reaction of one armored-car guy, so we paused the frame, took down the name on the side of the truck, and called the company to get a waiver from him.’’
Initially, Fallon and BMW had decided to film one serialized 45-to-60-minute film featuring a suave hero who saved, kidnapped, and escorted people using different BMW models. Fallon approached production company Anonymous Content, headed by David Fincher (director of Se7en and Fight Club), to produce the film. Fincher recommended that the spots be broken into five different films in order to facilitate file downloading and allow more flexibility in attracting talent to work on the project.
Following Fincher’s advice, Fallon developed scripts for five short films. In producing ‘‘The Hire,’’ Fincher and Fallon went so far as to create a dossier, complete with FBI and CIA files, just to flesh out the films’ hero. Fincher then solicited some of Hollywood’s top directors. The final list included Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate), Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express), Guy Ritchie (Snatch), and Alejandro Gonza´lez In˜a´rritu (Amores Perros). The scripts, ranging from dark to hilarious, were distributed according to each director’s style. Anonymous Content chairman Steve Golin told Shoot, ‘‘The good news is that these weren’t commercials. We had very few restrictions. The budgets were equivalent to [those of] high-end commercials.’’
Fallon flipped the advertising equation upside down by spending 90 percent of its budget on production and only 10 percent on media. The reduced media expenditure was initially seen as a huge risk. According to Advertising Age’s Creativity, a BMW rep warned Fallon, ‘‘Either nobody will notice, or this will be a smashing success.’’
For each of the six-to-seven-minute films, subplots were also created in an attempt to weave the film storylines together. British actor Clive Owen, whose character became the common thread for the entire campaign, always played the skillful hired driver. Frankenheimer’s ‘‘Ambush,’’ the campaign’s debut film, first became available for download on http://www.bmwfilms.com on April 26, 2001. It featured the hired driver saving a diamond smuggler from machine-gun toting assailants in a cargo van. Fallon released each of the following four spots every two weeks. Typical Hollywood methods, including broadcast spots, billboards, and free posters, were used to promote the films. Print ads ran in Hollywood trade magazines Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone. The trailers for ‘‘The Hire,’’ resembling regular movie trailers, aired on VH1, Bravo, and the Independent Film Channel. One of Fallon’s biggest challenges was to pitch the films as entertainment but to still disclose BMW’s involvement. ‘‘We wanted to avoid the ‘microbrew syndrome,’’’ Bildsten explained to Brandweek, ‘‘like where you look down and see that [your beer] was actually made by Anheuser-Busch.’’ ‘‘The Hire’’ was also uniquely filmed to fit computer screens. ‘‘No one had ever done an internet project of this magnitude, and we had a lot to learn,’’ Fallon producer Robyn Boardman told Advertising Age’s Creativity. ‘‘There are different things to keep in mind when shooting for the web. File size, for starters, and the fact that wide shots don’t play well.’’
Due to overwhelming Web traffic, ad-industry praise, and BMW’s bottom-line success in 2002, a ‘‘second season’’ consisting of three films began airing October 24, 2002. The second crop involved an equally renowned roster of names. Instead of Anonymous Content, all spots were produced by Ridley Scott (director of Blade Runner and Gladiator), who recruited directors Tony Scott (Top Gun), John Woo (Face/Off ), and Joe Carnahan (Narc). The actors included Gary Oldman, James Brown, Don Cheadle, Ray Liotta, and of course, Clive Owen, returning to star in the final three films. The last of the films was released at the end of 2002.
Even though BMW ended their 10-year relationship with Fallon in 2005, the eight films remained available on http://www.bmwfilms.com.
MADONNA PLAYING THE SPOILED DIVA
The campaign’s fourth film, ‘‘Star,’’ featured a spoiled diva who received her comeuppance after whining and complaining about the slow speed of Clive Owen’s driving. After smirking through a few minutes of her wrath, Owen slammed down the accelerator and ping-ponged the ‘‘star’’ in the backseat for a solid two minutes. Guy Ritchie, the director and cowriter of ‘‘Star,’’ talked his wife, Madonna, into playing the part. ‘‘When he signed on, we didn’t think she’d be along, we just desperately wanted him,’’ Fallon’s Bildsten told Shoot, adding that the actresses originally considered for the role ‘‘were a little more washed-up than her.’’
‘‘The Hire’’ raked in a plethora of advertising awards, including two Grand Clio Awards and a Grand Prix Cyber Lion at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France, along with Best of Show at the One Show Interactive competition. The campaign was praised not just by the ad industry; it earned kudos within the entertainment arena as well. ‘‘Hostage,’’ from the second series of films, earned the award for Best Action Short during the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival in 2002. Entertainment magazines began reviewing the films. Even the New York Times gave the films a favorable review. Their entertainment value garnered media coverage not accessible to typical advertisement. ‘‘We’d hoped for a good response, but we never thought it would be as strong as it was,’’ Bildsten told Shoot in 2001. ‘‘BMW recorded over eleven million film-views. And according to their research, it really worked. [The films] got people to not just pay attention, but to buy cars.’’ By June 2003 the films had been viewed more than 45 million times. BMW’s sales rose 17.2 percent between 2001 and 2002, helping the automaker to outsell Mercedes and placing it second only to Lexus in the luxury-car market. From an ad industry perspective, the greatest pinnacle of ‘‘The Hire’’ may have been winning the first-ever Titanium Lion, the highest honor at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. The award recognized a campaign that caused ‘‘the industry to stop in its tracks and reconsider the way forward.’’