Mini’s Wild Ride

How CP+B crafted its award-winning work for BMW’s quirky car

Alex Bogusky, executive creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, remembers the anxiety that followed final approval of the first round of the agency’s Mini Cooper work in January 2002. On a plane, he picked up a newspaper to see a front-page story on the rise in SUV sales. “We felt people were ready to move away from SUVs, and our campaign was consciously trying to be a catalyst for that change, but the forecasters certainly didn’t foresee any backlash,” he says. “Yes, there were times we were nervous.”

The U.S. relaunch of the 1960s British pop-culture symbol, bearing the audacious message that “The SUV backlash officially starts now” (an early billboard), was hardly considered a slam dunk. The diminutive Mini Cooper sedan and its modest marketing budget were the David to the Goliath of four-wheel drive vehicles and their massive advertising pushes. Fifteen months after the car’s March 2002 debut, CP+B’s $25-30 million campaign is scooping up advertising awards, and parent company BMW is selling more of the vehicles than it is making.

Before Mini USA hired the Miami shop in February 2001, it had decided that its ad budget and limited allotment of cars warranted a campaign that downplayed television in favor of print, promotions, events and other marketing tricks. CP+B won the business by drawing on its experience with integrated marketing for the American Legacy Foundation’s anti-smoking campaign and proposing a plan to treat the retro car as an American icon, much like the original Volkswagen Beetle, the Apple Macintosh or even Elvis.

“The client agreed with our idea that all the ads and marketing should kick-start the car’s perception as an icon and help it transcend its category,” says Bogusky. “To prove to people that this was an out-of-the-ordinary vehicle, we agreed that we would use unique ways of communicating our message.”

Agency research showed that people tend to humanize an icon, even if it’s a machine. Prelaunch promotions treated the car, whose design was inspired by the face of a bulldog, as a living creature. For instance, in September 2001, the agency put Minis in stadiums during a football game and a baseball game, as if they were spectators. A Playboy ad last June mimicked a Playmate spread, with biographical photos showing Mini’s “youth” in London.

An early tagline, “It lives,” reflected this approach. The agency coined “Let’s motor,” the final tag, just a few days before the pitch. “We modified the underused term ‘motoring’ into a contemporary phrase. ‘Motor’ could also be used to describe a lifestyle or state of mind,” says Bogusky.

Another defining element of an icon, the agency learned, is that its physical presence elicits a stronger emotional reaction than images on television or in print, Bogusky says. Before the car was officially released, the agency placed hidden cameras near parked Minis to watch as people got their first glimpse of the car. “Almost always they smiled,” says Bogusky. “The reaction wasn’t the same when we showed them photos of the car.” The agency then dreamed up whimsical ways to show off the car, placing it on top of Ford Excursion SUVs that were driven around 22 cities and installing it alongside kiddie rides outside shopping malls with a notice next to the change box: “Rides $16,850.”

Because the Mini’s target is not an age group per se but rather “drivers of various ages who value self-expression, humor and openness,” says associate creative director Andrew Keller, the promotions were conducted along the coasts and in large cities, where the automaker found the highest concentrations of that profile. Keller oversees the day-to-day work of the creative team: Bill Wright, Tom Adams, Tony Calcao, Rob Strausberg and Mark Taylor (original member Ari Merkin left in December).

“The agency has an amazing tenacity in figuring out how to get things done,” says Kerri Martin, marketing communications manager at Mini. The Mini-topped SUV, for instance, started as an idea for a spot, and there were a few jokes about carrying out the stunt on the street. But after jumping over the legal hurdles, the agency hired a movie-set company to cut the roofs out of the SUVs, and stunt drivers took the wheel.

The agency-client relationship has been informal. “We don’t put together pages of creative briefs,” says Martin. Beyond key brand-strategy messages, “we basically tell them to go and play. It is so sad to see a great idea watered down by the process.”

Ideas for specific ads and promotions don’t generally arise out of agency brainstorming sessions, says Bogusky. “The good ideas come from a staff member who thinks up a concept he or she thinks would be fun and iconic, and then works to convince the rest of the team,” he explains.

Martin credits the agency’s efforts to “break down the silos” between the creative and media departments for the campaign’s effectiveness. (Of the 20,000 vehicles for sale last year, dealers sold 24,590, and more than 12,000 cars have moved this year, with some customers waiting five months for delivery.) “We think of each project like the making of a movie,” says James Poh, director of client content distribution services at CP+B. “Our team is like the director of the movie, and the creative department is like the screenwriter of the movie.”

In an ironic role reversal, it is sometimes the media, or “distribution,” people who come up with the wild ideas and the creatives who squash them for being too costly. For example, Poh wanted to create a billboard that showed a a trail of real flames following a Mini. Bogusky decided against the idea after learning a fire truck would have to be parked nearby and a 24-hour fire marshall hired to watch over the board.

“Some ideas that sounded easy were complicated and vice versa,” says Bogusky. “You just never knew.” Getting the cars into stadiums proved a particular headache, as the agency had to secure permission from stadium security and the networks broadcasting the game. “We stopped doing it because it was just too hard,” he says.

For a one-time execution in AutoWeek that ran last July, the agency showed the Mini driving around the magazine’s center staples, which were orange for the occasion. “In a campaign like this, the learning curve is tremendous,” says Poh. “We had to learn about staple manufacturing and magazine binding to order the custom-made staples.”

Late last year an agency staffer observed that celebrity icons always pop up on the covers of supermarket tabloids and wondered if that could ever happen to the Mini. “We laughed and said, ‘No way!’ ” recalls Bogusky. But the media team took the bait and finagled a first-time product-placement deal with the tongue-in-cheek Weekly World News. In the Jan. 3 issue, its cover featured a story about Bat Boy, a familiar figure to the tabloid’s readers, stealing a Mini.

“We thought about the paper’s distribution at the grocery-store checkout as the best out-of-home placement on the planet,” Keller says. The placement generated a flurry of attention among Mini fans on the Internet, Poh says, more even than news that same month that the North American International Auto Show in Detroit had named the vehicle 2003 North American Car of the Year. “The irreverence and surprise,” Poh says, “obviously struck a chord.”

Along with the offbeat marketing ploys, four spots linked the car to its heritage; in one, for example, a Bobbie stops a Mini on a U.S. highway. The ads broke in movie theaters last June and aired on network TV in December.

The unconventional campaign took home two media Lions at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes last summer. Last month, the campaign won five International Andys, Best of Show in the branded integration category at The One Show, and Mini was The One Show’s first Advertiser of the Year. CP+B and its client “were willing to take the most chances,” says One Show judge Eric Silver, creative director at Cliff Freeman and Partners. “The outdoor posters, and everything they did, stood out and were consistently good.”

By last December, five months after the car launched and eight months after marketing efforts began, brand awareness in the U.S. had grown to 53 percent, according to Mini general manager Jack Pitney. Media spending from March 2002 to January 2003 totaled $14 million, per TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, and sources say another $10 million or so was spent on non-media marketing initiatives.

With the campaign now in its second year, promotional efforts will continue to reinforce Mini’s fun-loving reputation, but more television and magazine advertising will back up the less traditional marketing, sources say. While the campaign initially sought the trendsetter car buyers, “the early adopters are driving their Minis around town, and it’s time to reach out to the broader market,” Bogusky says.

Last month the car maker ran two new spots in 10 markets to celebrate Mini’s Car of the Year award, and made available a third spot for dealers. Exposure is also coming from the just-released The Italian Job, a remake of a 1969 Michael Caine film that featured the original Mini Cooper. BMW, which did not pay for the placement, supplied the cars. For one co-promotion in mid-May, Paramount invited Mini owners to a temporary drive-in theater at its Hollywood lot to watch a preview of the movie.

The challenge is to avoid the fate of another retro model that launched with a limited distribution, Chrysler’s PT Cruiser. The car started strong but then lost its cachet, and this year sales have dropped 16.5 percent, says Todd Turner, president of consulting firm Car Concepts in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Last month BMW announced it will launch a convertible Mini in the U.S. next year. A new model will help boost the Mini Cooper buzz, but can the marketing program keep coming up with surprises? Not a problem, says Martin with a laugh. “If there is only a glimmer of hope, we give them the green light,” she says. “The hard job is picking which ideas to do.”