Gabe Nelson
Gabe Nelson
Silicon Valley, Tesla, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Mitsubishi

Attention all hipsters: Audi wants to sell you a car

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I get the feeling that Audi really, really wants me at their party.

As we reported today, Audi of America wants all of its roughly 280 U.S. dealerships to throw parties on the night of April 3 to celebrate the A3, the entry-level sedan that arrives in U.S. dealerships this month after years of preparations, and which Audi sees as a way to win the hearts of a new generation of luxury buyers.

Audi has sent its dealers an elaborate, 64-page guide to planning the parties, which are meant for people between their mid-20s and early 40s. And the guide, obtained by Automotive News (click here to download the PDF), makes clear that Audi is targeting hipsters, those indie-music and craft-beer fans from Brooklyn, Austin and Portland.

Audi’s guide never uses the word “hipster,” which carries a whole lot of baggage.

And yet, contained in the guide’s 64 pages are so many hipster stereotypes -- bacon doughnuts, unfiltered craft beer, up-and-coming bands like Chvrches -- that it feels like something out of the TV show “Portlandia.”

“To establish Audi as a lifestyle brand, we need to create a lifestyle experience,” the guide says. “Every facet of the launch event, from cutting-edge music to gourmet food to minimalist décor, should … be uniquely tailored to this discerning demographic.”

As a young city dweller, I think I’m part of the exact group Audi is targeting. Not only do I own the Chvrches album, I own it on vinyl, like any self-respecting hipster should. You won’t find any Bud Light in my fridge; you’ll find craft beers from small, independent breweries. The weirder the better.

Audi’s marketers have done a bang-up job of figuring out what my peer group likes, but seeing us fetishized as a demographic feels a little disturbing.

Just take a look at the party plan:

“The music needs to demonstrate an obvious cool-factor, and create the kind of hip, nighttime, uncompromised ambiance that no other competitor can deliver.” (Page 32)

“This target audience likely shops local, supports local businesses, and buys organic. This is something to factor into your decisions regarding food and drink.” (Page 42)

Audi asked dealers to “play to the current trend of unfiltered wines and beers,” preferably from boutique brands like Evil Twin Brewing, a Copenhagen-based “gypsy brewery” (whatever that means) with an outpost in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

As for food, Audi suggests dealers “consider partnering with a ‘niche,’ farm-to-table type restaurant” to serve haute comfort food. Suggested menu items include: portobello mushroom cannoli, bacon-wrapped dates, shrimp lollipops with Thai chili sauce, dark chocolate grilled cheese and bacon doughnuts.

No sellouts invited

Audi’s slogan for the A3 is “stay uncompromised.” Audi is trying to stress that its new entry-level model, starting at just above $30,000, is a no-compromises luxury car. But another reason for the slogan is to resonate with “a generation that refuses to settle or sell out,” as the party plan puts it.

Does refusing to sell out mean going to a market-researched, corporate-sponsored party, and then buying an Audi?

Ask any marketer, and they’ll tell you hipsters like craft beer, farm-to-table food and independent music precisely because they are not corporate. They feel more authentic than some commodity shipped around the world.

With this sort of marketing, Audi runs the risk of being seen as pandering to a generation that is cynical about being sold anything by multinational conglomerate, no matter how wonderful the product is.

Then again, maybe this anti-corporate mentality is an air that hipsters put on to tell the world “this is who I am.” Maybe it’s not that different from buying a luxury car.

Audi has instructed its dealers how to throw the perfect party to celebrate the launch of the A3. Music from recommended artists include: Chvrches, Grimes, Phantogram, Empire of the Sun, M83, Capital Cities, Cut Copy and DJ Classixx.

Young people don’t buy luxury cars

You might be thinking there’s another hole in this marketing plan: Hipsters don’t buy luxury cars. Their parents do.

In general, you’re right, even for the smallest, most affordable models in the luxury market. The average buyer of Audi’s A4 sedan is 48, compared with 51 for the Lexus IS, 55 for the BMW 3 series and 58 for the Mercedes-Benz C class. Chances are, if one of these buyers has a beard and eyeglasses, it’s not the ironic, trendy Brooklyn kind.

Sure, a few twenty-somethings will buy the A3, but most of them can’t afford it, or they will save a few bucks and get something else. Audi’s marketers are really hoping these hipsters will dream of owning an Audi when they get older, just as their grandparents might have aspired to possess a big ol’ Cadillac.

"When they get there, Audi wants to be ready for them,” says Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific. “They’re very, very well aware of the fact that they need to attract the next generation of buyers.”

That’s what makes Audi’s party plan so fascinating. It is an unusually honest look inside the minds of automotive marketers, whose job is not just to sell cars today, but to embed a brand in the minds of the young so it lies dormant until they have money.

Lifestyle brand

Audi of America has adhered to that formula with particular devotion under Scott Keogh, the former marketing chief who took over as president in 2012. When I spoke to Keogh at the Detroit auto show, he was gearing up for the A3 launch.

I asked him what Audi had learned from the fall launch of the Mercedes-Benz CLA, the A3’s archrival in the entry-level luxury segment. He cited a news report saying 75 percent of CLA buyers were first-time Mercedes customers. That’s what excited him.

“The thing they’ve done well is, they’ve brought a lot of new buyers in,” Keogh said. “We anticipate the exact same thing.”

Most of the Audi dealers that I’ve spoken to about the A3 are strong believers. They are doing their best to follow Audi’s party directive, even if it means leaving their comfort zone to cater to a new clientele.

“We’ll do the program exactly how they said,” says Blake Strong, who has an Audi store in Salt Lake City, not far from the University of Utah campus. “Here’s the bottom line: I have a lot of trust in Scott Keogh, and I’ve learned that he knows what he’s doing. He does his homework.”

Time will tell whether the A3 is a hit or miss with the hipster crowd, and whether this marketing strategy creates a generation of Audi lovers.

But since I’m part of the target demographic, I imagine I’ll have an easy time figuring out if it’s working. A few months from now, I’ll throw a party. I’ll pause the chillwave playing on the stereo, put down my craft beer, set aside the bacon doughnuts, and ask my friends: “So, what do you think of Audi?”

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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