The wonders of the digital age produce advertising results that 20th-century marketers could only dream of. But there is more to marketing than just blasting out your message to as many people as possible and measuring clicks. Marketing has always been, and is still, a beautiful and chaotic mix of science, psychology, art and instinct. A successful marketing campaign goes beyond hard numbers, creates a powerful connection with customers, and finds new ones while building your brand.
Automotive public relations and marketing teams have been trying to figure out how to do this effectively since the first Ford Model T rolled off the assembly line. The methods and mediums may have changed over the years, but the goals of building connections, raising brand awareness and driving sales have always been the same. What follows is a look at the most innovative and unique automotive marketing campaigns of all time. Some might not have produced instant sales successes, but they all made an impact and are still remembered today.
VOLVO’S SPLIT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
Were not sure how the pitch meeting for this one went or if there were copious amounts of alcohol involved. Perhaps someone was just a massive fan of what no one says is the greatest martial arts movie ever made, the 1988 epic “Bloodsport” (and who could blame them). But somehow and someway, the Muscles from Brussels wound up on top of the rearview mirrors of two Volvo trucks at sunset, traveling backward at speed. In an almost Zen-like state and with a comically serious voiceover, Jean Claude Van Damme proceeds to do one of the most epic splits ever witnessed by humankind as the trucks carefully and slowly separate to the soothing sound of Enya’s “Only Time.”
The brainchild of Swedish advertising agency Forsman & Bodenfors, “Epic Split” was conceived to showcase the precision and stability of Volvo’s Dynamic Steering System. Part of a six-part series on Volvo trucks, the uniqueness and over-the-top quality of “Epic Split” made it an instant success garnering over 40 million views in just nine days. Currently, the video has 114 million views on Volvo Truck’s official YouTube channel and millions more on unofficial outlets. “Epic Split” shows the power of creative thinking and how the right creative or automotive public relations agency can turn a mundane topic into something memorable and fascinating.
NISSAN TAKES PART IN HISTORY
On September 26, 2017, history was made as Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on female drivers. Inside the kingdom, the move was controversial as the country struggled to modernize from its ultra-traditional roots. Most OEMs avoid any hint of controversy at all costs, but Nissan saw an opportunity where others feared to tread and created the #SheDrives campaign. The unique, women-centric campaign started with a video featuring women learning how to drive with the help of their brothers, fathers and husbands showing solidarity with a new vision of the future. Nissan even shared safety tips and vehicle suggestions to empower women to become licensed drivers. A multi-year campaign, Nissan’s #SheDrives also spotlighted what driving has meant to inspirational Saudi women like the first female Formula E driver, Reem Al Aboud.
While not well known outside of Arabic-speaking countries, the #SheDrives campaign made an impact by having Nissan be the first OEM to talk directly to aspiring female drivers within Saudi Arabia. The well-crafted campaign with useful and inspirational content, along with not being afraid of controversy (without creating more), let Nissan build a powerful connection with future and prospective customers.
HONDA MAKES ITS MARK
In the early 1960s, most Americans thought motorcycles were for violent biker gangs and homicidal drifters. Like their riders, motorcycles of the era were ill-tempered, rough around the edges and unreliable. In 1959, American Honda and a young Kihachiro Kawashima entered this fray with big plans and lofty sales goals for Honda motorcycles. By the end of 1962, American Honda grew steadily, selling 40,000 motorcycles a year (more than any other manufacturer). But Kawashima wasn’t satisfied and wanted to sell 200,000 motorcycles the following year.
To achieve that massive number, Kawashima knew he had to drastically change public perception of motorcycles and appeal to an entirely different demographic. Grey Advertising caught the attention of Kawashima with the catchy slogan, “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda,” and a campaign showing wives, young couples, parents with children, and other respectable members of society, riding the Honda 50 in everyday situations. A pass-through, easy-to-ride motorcycle with a three-speed automatic transmission, the trusty Honda 50 was the perfect motorcycle for changing public perception and capturing new riders. Kawashima didn’t reach his lofty goal for 1963, with the Vietnam War and civil strife causing a sales slump in the mid-1960s. But with American Honda’s determination to change public perception and Grey Advertising’s catchy campaign, Honda sold 500,000 motorcycles a year by 1970. To see more advertisements from this famous campaign, check out the article from Vintage Everyday.
BMW GOES TO THE MOVIES
In 2000, BMW was in the middle of a sales slump, Mercedes and Lexus were taking bigger chunks of sales with SUVs, and it had no new product launches to promote. BMW needed to do something beyond just making another boring commercial about special financing rates, or it faced another year of declining sales. Teaming with creative and automotive public relations agency Fallon, BMW took the bold step of creating an integrated marketing campaign focused on a series of short films called “The Hire.” Slickly produced and with a big-budget movie feel, the series included outsized talents like directors Ang Lee and Guy Ritchie with big-name stars like Madonna, Gary Oldman, Danny Trejo and even Marilyn Manson. At the center of each episode was Clive Owen playing The Driver, who transports anything or anyone to anywhere behind the wheel of a BMW.
Unconventional for the time, “The Hire” series of films never felt like commercials and were wildly successful. BMW created a campaign to promote the films that combined guerilla marketing, buzz generation, content marketing and unique collaborations. By the end of its third season, “The Hire” series had been viewed over 100 million times in an era before YouTube with dial-up Internet and only 6.8% of the global population online. Beyond winning a multitude of awards, “The Hire” also drove sales. Instead of following a downward trend, 2001 sales were up 12.5% (the best U.S. sales ever reported) and climbed a further 17.5% the following year. BMW set the bar extremely high by authentically mixing entertainment with advertising and creatively marketing it.
FORMULA 1 THRIVES TO SURVIVE
Liberty Media faced significant challenges when it purchased Formula 1 in 2017. Television viewership of the racing series had declined every year for a decade and was almost 50% lower than its peak. Engagement in the United States was falling even faster with only one race stateside and limited television coverage for other races on more obscure networks. Even hardcore fans were tuning out as Mercedes Benz’s absolute dominance of the sport made for extremely boring racing. Watching Lewis Hamilton take what were essentially parade laps on his way to yet another easy win was too much for everyone except die-hard Hamilton fans. The trends were all downward, and if they continued, Formula 1 would die a slow death.
So how does a series at the pinnacle of motorsport attract new fans without alienating existing ones? The answer was to team with Netflix and create the docuseries “Drive To Survive.” Instead of being about race wrap-ups, results or post-race interviews like typical racing shows, “Drive to Survive” focuses on drivers, team managers, and the many personalities within Formula 1, both on the track and off. It humanized drivers otherwise hidden behind helmets, made them more relatable, and attracted a whole new series of fans, including those in the United States. Starting in 2019, the “Netflix effect” on the series was visible, with television ratings finally going in the right direction. According to an article in The Guardian, overall ratings for Formula 1 in 2021 were up 40%, and it was the most-watched season in the United States. And F1 added an estimated 73 million new fans globally. Not too shabby.
RUF GOES VIRAL
In 1987, RUF introduced the world to the CTR Yellowbird. Based on a 911 Porsche Carrera 3.2, the Yellowbird wasn’t just a slightly modified version of the original car but almost a complete rebuild. The engine was enlarged to 3.4 liters, twin turbos were added, a custom five-speed transmission was installed, and brake and suspension upgrades significantly increased performance. Weight was also reduced by removing interior components and replacing steel body panels with aluminum. The result was a supercar faster than the Lamborghini Diablo and Ferrari F40. With its top speed of 212 mph, the RUF Yellowbird even bested Porsche’s factory 959.
RUF went to the famous Nurburgring with a helicopter and cameras to promote the Yellowbird by making a 20-minute-long video called “Faszination.” Long before YouTube and GoPros, the innovative video used in-car cameras with a multitude of angles to put viewers directly inside of Yellowbird. By showing what it was like to set a Nurburgring record lap from a previously unseen driver’s perspective, “Faszination” was an instant success and helped create a new genre of car videos.
The legacy and marketing value of Yellowbird lived on for decades well beyond “Faszination.” In 2000, gaming giant Electronic Arts (EA) acquired the exclusive rights to use Porsche in its “Need For Speed” series of games. RUF, considered a separate vehicle manufacturer, wasn’t bound by that agreement. Yellowbird was used as a hero car in Polyphony Digital’s “Gran Turismo” and Turn 10 Studios’ “Forza” series of extremely popular games exposing RUF to a whole new generation of automotive enthusiasts. Thirty years after the introduction of Yellowbird, RUF unveiled the CTR Anniversary that paid homage to and was the supercar successor of the original. The CTR Anniversary played a prominent role in the documentary “RUF: Love at the Red Line.” Created by us here at Kahn Media, the exceptional video told the definitive story of RUF helping to celebrate its 80th anniversary. Released to massive fanfare in the middle of the pandemic, the evergreen video now has hundreds of thousands of views.
PORSCHE’S PRINT ADS
It may be hard for those raised in our increasingly digitally-based society to believe, but not that long ago, print advertising in magazines reigned supreme. Beyond television commercials, a full-page advertisement in an enthusiast magazine was most automotive manufacturers’ primary form of marketing. And print ads were a challenging medium to master. They had to quickly catch attention using strong images, catchy slogans, and the right copy in a limited amount of space.
While demanding for some, Porsche was an absolute master of the print ad. Earlier versions often used a frontal silhouette of a Porsche, a very catchy headline, some brief copy to make a point and a healthy dose of wit. Porsche’s advertisement for introducing the 964 in 1989 is the perfect example, asking if anyone ever spent their youth dreaming about owning a Mitsubishi or a Nissan? The graphics changed as the years went by, but the formula was still the same, as illustrated by Porsche’s famous “Kills Bugs Fast” advertisement for the 1995 993 Turbo.
MAKING STATION WAGONS COOL
Volvo was another company adept at creating catchy ads during the heyday of print advertising. Initially, most of Volvo’s advertising focused on the safety aspects of its vehicles. While Volvo made significant advances in safety, it wasn’t exactly an exciting subject. Not helping was the fact that most Volvos of the era looked like boxes on wheels. Volvo was beginning to get the reputation of making boring cars bought by boring people for doing boring stuff in their boring lives. The Swedish car company suddenly found itself becoming uncool.
In desperate need of a brand rehab as English teachers could only buy so many Volvos, its advertising switched gears highlighting the performance aspects of its 740 Turbo Wagon. The new adverts skillfully and playfully compared the turbo-charged Volvo to well-known performance cars with memorable headlines like “Until Ferrari Builds A Wagon, This Is It.” Another famously pictured a Volvo 740 Turbo Wagon next to a Porsche and noted how all cars look the same to a radar gun. The catchy advertisement campaign took a while, but sales slowly and steadily increased. Volvo had somehow made station wagons cool and completely changed its image.
BMW’S ETERNAL SLOGAN
BMW’s “The Ultimate Driving Machine” iconic tagline is among the most successful marketing campaigns of all time as it has become synonymous with the brand. Created in 1973 by Bob Lutz, then working as an executive at BMW before rising to fame at General Motors, the slogan was perfectly timed and phrased. Baby boomers coming of age in the 1970s were looking for a symbol of upward mobility and a vehicle that conveyed pride of ownership. Some manufacturers were switching to soulless econoboxes during the rapid rise of gas prices later that same decade, but the same generation wanted vehicles that were still fun to drive.
The direct language of the slogan was effective because it wasn’t vague or fluffy. Drivers of BMWs weren’t just driving a car. They were driving a machine that provided the ultimate driving experience. The slogan resonated in the 1970s and uniquely positioned BMW in the market, driving sales over the years. It is still in use today, and efforts to change it have been met with resistance by BMW customers.
Elon Musk, the eccentric SpaceX and Tesla CEO, is known for defying convention and creating public relations stunts that grab lots of attention. The Boring Company’s “Not a Flamethrower,” which was definitely a flamethrower, Tesla short shorts and tequila and the Cybertruck’s “impervious” glass shattering at its introduction were all memorable. But the most over-the-top of them all must be the spacesuit-clad dummy named “Starman” in the driver’s seat of a 2008 Tesla Roadster.
Blasted into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in 2018, the images of “Starman” blissfully “driving” his way through the galaxy became immediate sensations across every form of media and the Internet. Musk could have selected a more generic payload to test the capacities of the Falcon Heavy. But, by coming up with the idea of sticking a dummy in the driver’s seat of a Tesla, he created a massive amount of free PR with almost everyone on the planet aware of the stunt. And that free PR continues to this day with people still curious about the whereabouts of “Starman.” Currently, he is roughly 234,366,378 miles away from Earth, traveling at 4,020 miles per hour, and due to crash land back on Earth (or possibly Venus or Mars) in 10 million years, making for yet another major PR opportunity for Musk or his clone.