Issue: The Audi Driving Experience shows the opportunities and challenges of building a brand experience
Commentary by: David Vinjamuri
Your advertising blogger recently had the opportunity to attend the Audi Driving Experience at Sebring Raceway in Florida. The program is called an ‘advanced handling course’ and as such it falls somewhere between the teenage netherworld of driver’s ed and the high thrills, high dollar sport of amateur racing. The goal is to teach adults how cars handle in real-world situations and give them practical experience in recovering from ice-induced skids, sudden road obstacles and other road hazards. The program is run by experienced professional race car drivers; at Sebring it is a team led by Grand-Am Cup racer Nick Fanelli through Panoz Racing School. About a dozen adult males (and the adult daughter of one) turned out for the opportunity to drive Audi TT coupes around various configurations of cones and on a wet/dry skidpad with Nick Fanelli’s team.
The Audi Driving Experience is an enjoyable weekend for the participants, and a nice add-on to race car training for Fanelli and Panoz, but it is deadly serious business for Audi. It is a very rare chance for Audi to indoctrinate its most loyal customers in the brand and to turn them into brand advocates. As we all know, those consumers who are most passionate about a brand recommend it. These brand advocates (or brand evangelists) have a huge effect on long-term brand strength. In some brands, we can see over half of all new users being influenced by a brand advocate with a personal recommendation.
The Audi Driving Experience is a well-run program, but it misses huge opportunities to position and build the Audi brand with enthusiasts. The Audi marketing team seems to have little connection with the school and they did not turn the Audi Driving Experience into a step behind the velvet rope for the participants. Among the missed opportunities:
- Brand Connection – There was good Audi signage and Audi vehicles as well as instructors who had tested other Audi products and spoke highly of them. However the school didn’t either sell or distribute Audi branded material (students seemed uniformly disappointed not even to be given a t-shirt or hat to commemorate their weekend). Beyond that, nobody from Audi USA corporate attended the event. This would be a golden opportunity for marketers to connect with the base and more importantly to give these consumers a sense of being included in the Audi family by discussing upcoming vehicles, challenges, etc. Instead the experience seemed very removed from the brand.
- Sampling – The majority of the adults in this class were high-net worth individuals, many with a stable of cars. Given that, it was surprising that Audi only supplied the school with 2006 model Audi TTs, and none of the high-end Audis that the participants would be more likely to buy upon returning home. This obviously springs from a cost reduction focus (flogging a $70,000 A-8 or RS-4 on the skidpad is more expensive than a car costing half as much and makes maintenance trickier as well). On the other hand, Audi could have sold a few cars immediately (perhaps getting a return on the higher equipment and maintenance costs) and it certainly would have generated more enthusiasm with these brand faithful if they had let the students drive their premium products. BMW appears to understand the importance of high-end sampling as they routinely use M-5′s (one of their most exclusive cars) in their own driving school.
- Relationship Building – Running a branded experience should be the beginning, not the end, of a relationship. While Panoz, the company running the training understood this, Audi did not. Ironically, at the end of the course students walked away with materials on other classes from Panoz but nothing from Audi.
All of this goes back to a theme that the ThirdWay Advertising Blog has been harping on for most of the past three years – execution. It’s not enough to have a good idea for your brand and to construct a decent strategic plan to execute it. You have to get the details right, all of them. The Audi Driving Experience is a great example of a brand getting the big idea right, but fumbling on the execution. While senior management can dismiss the impact of these programs because they reach relatively few consumers, the impact of these consumers can be significant. Just try Googling “Audi Driving Experience” in a week or so. You’ll likely find these words up near the top of the list, next to Audi’s.