Audi makes a rare marketing misstep

In recent years, Audi has done a terrific job marketing its brand. Sales are up globally and will probably exceed 1.0MM units this year (WSJ 8/2/10).  In the US, Audi came through the recession on a tear and has never looked back.  Great products, great design, with quality that has improved and is now comparable to the best in the business. The Audi brand is aspirational and prestigious in most global markets. While it has lagged its competitors in the US, it has gained in prestige in recent years and many would say it has achieved the vaunted Tier-1 status in this country.

So why would one of the most well-regarded progressive luxury automotive brands in the world make the silly mistake of blatantly copying their nearest competitor?

A few weeks ago I was in the UK and I happened to walk by Leicester Square in London and was excited to see an Audi display in the park. I went over to have a look and discovered that the display was part of the UK’s introduction of the A1.

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The display was called “AreaA1” and it was getting a lot of attention from Londoners.  It was the first time I had the opportunity to see the A1 in person.  It’s a wonderful car and I hope the folks at Audi of America make the decision to bring it to the US.  It was so crowded, that it was hard to get a picture….at least a good picture:

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However, I turned to the other half of the display and was profoundly disappointed by one of the key AreaA1 marketing ideas:

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What you’re looking at is an Audi “Art Car” painted by Damien Hirst. The “art” was fantastic (my photography is not) but it still left me wondering “why?”  Why would Audi commission an artist to paint a car when their most direct competitor did it first and has done so many times.  Why would Audi copy BMW?  Why would a brand that has worked so hard to earn a seat at the Tier 1 luxury segment table do something in marketing that screamed “look at us, we’re just like BMW!”

According to Wikipedia, a BMW was first used as a canvas in 1975 when French racecar driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain commissioned Alexander Calder to paint a 3.0CSL:

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Since 1975, BMW has commissioned 17 different artists to create “art cars.”  I think it fair to say that by now BMW “owns” the concept of art cars in the luxury segment. Wikipedia even has an entry entitled “BMW Art Cars.”

That isn’t to say that other luxury marques should not somehow participate in the arts. After all, Mercedes-Benz famously commissioned Andy Warhol to create a series of artworks.  But Audi, one of the industry’s most innovative and progressive companies should find its own way of connecting to the arts, not simply copy BMW.

Unfortunately Audi of America fell into the same trap when it sponsored Art Chicago in 2007. Audi introduced the Audi RS4 Art car created by Brazilian-born Pop artist Romero Britto:

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When a competitor has consistently over time used a particular tactic and has become well known for it you can’t differentiate your brand by doing the same thing. You will simply communicate that you are just like the other guys and probably do more to build their brand.  You don’t build a distinct and special brand by copying a competitor.

Having said that, Audi UK’s art car was subsequently auctioned off at Elton John’s charity event for about $525,000, the proceeds will go to the Elton John Aids Foundation.  That might be the only good reason for Audi to copy BMW marketing.

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20 Responses to “Audi makes a rare marketing misstep”

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  17. Lee Palmiter says:

    I disagree…

    Most notably at least one Porsche 917 “Art Car” was not just for ooo-ing and awes, having been entered for competitive events, well back in the day.

    I agree that BMW is well-recognized and has earned deserved respect for their beautiful Art Cars, but to say they are the only legitimate patron of the genre would be a narrow view on what is or is not art.

    I applaud AUDI for keeping such expression alive and for reminding us why we love cars and motorsports.

  18. Truck Parts says:

    I HIGHLY disagree with you. I would understand if the way it was painted was the same or had the same style of painting but the thing with using a car as a canvas is that everything painted on it will be unique. And I don’t really see this as copying BMW because there are a lot of other car companies that have done this and in the end it is an awesome way to promote and show off your car.

  19. Audi A1 is a good car but i’ll never buy it because i prefere mercedes.

  20. Cameron says:

    The artists will always add their particular perspective to the work. if you look at the BMW art cars over the years, they’re all quite different.

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