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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The BCMA hosted panel ‘Back to the Future of Branded Content’, packed out the auditorium at the ‘Inspiration Stage’ for the inaugural Lions Entertainment Festival. Those attending were taken on an incredible journey back to 2001 sharing some never before seen or discussed content about BMW Films.
To set the scene for key events of 2001, we heard that Dennis Tito became the first space ‘tourist’; Enron filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and was the largest corporate failure; we witnessed the terrible atrocities of 9/11; Tony Blair’s Labour government were elected for a second term; the ‘War on Terror’ began as the USA invaded Afghanistan; the Tower of Pisa opened again after 11-years of refurbishment; the Eden Project opened in Cornwall and the first of the huge media mergers, America Online (AOL) and Time Warner was approved, forming the now ill-fated, AOL Time Warner.
With regards to technology, Internet penetration was just 8.1% and the best selling mobile was the Nokia 3310 handset.
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the BMW Group, a company with a long-standing and well-deserved reputation for innovation – not just in its vehicles, but in all aspects of its business including marketing. A great example of this innovative spirit in marketing came back in 2001 with the introduction of BMW Films, a series of eight short films that all but created the branded content category and set the stage for an entire industry.
It is clear that BMW and their creative partners were so ahead of the curve. The stellar line up of talent including Directors, Ang Lee, Guy Richie, John Woo, Ridley and Tony Scott. The star-studded line-up of Actors included Clive Owen, Madonna, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Gary Oldman and Forest Whitaker was nothing short of extraordinary. It pretty much launched the career of Clive Owen.
If BMW had produced these films in today’s celebrity obsessed world, it would probably have ‘broken the Internet’! To this day, due in large part to the quality of the storytelling, the purity of the brand integration and the quality of the talent behind and in front of the camera, BMW Films remain timeless and at the pinnacle of branded content.
The figures are nothing short of incredible when you put them in the context of the market at the time. This was way before YouTube was even thought about and there wasn’t such a thing as superfast broadband! Across the period, they attracted over 100 million visitors to the BMW website to view the films. It was heralded as “One of the great marketing campaigns of the millennium” and perhaps most importantly, sales increased by ‘double-digit’ growth.
In reality, the ‘Car was the Star’ as each film featured a different BMW model.
With the help of BMW North America, the BCMA gathered together four of the original key individuals who were responsible for creating this ground breaking branded content campaign. This included, Jim McDowell (AKA ‘Mr BMW’), the now retired, pioneering BMW client that commissioned the BMW Film series.
He was joined on stage by Bruce Bildsten, the then Creative Director of Fallon who shaped the vision for the Films.
We were shown the original Story Boards, for the ‘Beat The Devil’ film, created by the legendary – sadly deceased – Producer, Tony Scott (RSA Films), that David Carter, Writer and Art Director of the Series, explained to the audience.
Finally, we heard from Brian DiLorenzo, Executive Producer, who explained how they chose the talent and in particular how Clive Owen became the ‘face’ of BMW Films after the team saw his performance in his first major movie, The Croupier.
One of the best insights came from Jim McDowell, when he was asked “How did you get this approved by the ‘powers that be’ at BMW?” to which he answered, “I didn’t tell them, I kept it secret until we know we had something truly spectacular.”
Go backstage with Cannes Lions TV and hear from Andrew Canter and Brian DiLorenzo here.
We’d like to thank those who were not on stage, Fred Senn of Fallon, Steve Golin of Anonymous Content and Jules Daly of RSA Films who were also instrumental in the making of the BMW Film Series.
Also, a mention to those who are sadly no longer with us that were involved, namely, Joe Sweet and Tony Scott.
Special thanks to Phil DiIanni from BMW North America for helping to make this a reality and our panelists for sharing their amazing insights into one of the best ever branded content campaigns.