Audi last month recorded its 68th consecutive monthly sales record. Its streak of 82 monthly sales increases is the longest of any brand in U.S. auto history.
Those kinds of numbers might give a brand’s marketing team reason to turn conservative. But Audi remains hungry. For all its gains, its U.S. sales are still running behind luxury’s big three: BMW, Mercedes and Lexus.
As Audi claws its way to that top tier, it has relied on the creative services of San Francisco-based Venables Bell & Partners. The agency hasn’t been afraid to go out on a limb with its ad concepts, often using humor to sell a serious luxury brand.
In an interview with Special Correspondent Julie Halpert, agency founder and chairman Paul Venables, 50, discussed other ways Audi hopes to distinguish itself, including its strategy for marketing autonomous-driving technology.
Q: Humor is a big part of Audi’s ads. How much of that can a luxury brand get away with?
A: A lot of the luxury brands make the mistake of not treating their consumers as intelligent people. A big part of intelligent people who understand societal issues and cultural references is that they have a decent sense of humor. Treating them like real human beings who have sharp wit, that has always been a key differentiator for Audi advertising.
Audi is preparing to be a leader in autonomous driving — still a fairly new frontier as far as advertising is concerned. What are the keys to presenting that technology to consumers?
The trick in good technology marketing is to cut through the hype and make things relatable, humanize them and then people are drawn to them and can imagine those pieces of technology in their lives helping them. We did an ad for the A4 where we showed clips of the cars that Audi has been working with and then relate that to a very small moment in a traffic jam. A woman doesn’t have to be fighting traffic because the car is taking over. So the big question as we market it is autonomous driving’s role in still serving the driver. It’s not just about the technology. It’s how does it enhance the driving experience.
What’s it like to get a Super Bowl assignment?
It’s the one moment of the year where your industry is put under the microscope. There’s this excitement and thrill of getting the opportunity on the big stage, but there’s incredible responsibility of delivering. I think one of the most important things we’ve done since the beginning with Audi is use multiple channels. You have the pregame stuff and the PR releases. Socially, you can actually release the spot in advance. Then you have the actual moment and then the postgame stuff where you have tools to augment and further push out to create the complete package and make the entire effort a smart investment. Over the years, we’ve been very good at delivering results.
What role do conventional TV events have for Audi? Are they still worth the investment?
They still play a role. It’s an important vehicle for dealerships. We still drive traffic with television advertising at the local and regional levels, which is a very important part of the mix for Audi.
What are other high-impact initiatives?
The big marquee high-profile live events play a big role. When we started on Audi, we had a strategy designed around something we called public prestige. Private prestige is: “I have an Audi and I know it’s a great car.” That’s not enough. We needed a muscle in there next to Mercedes and BMW. We needed this public prestige, which really translated to: “I have the car in my driveway, I know it’s a great car.
And when my neighbor looks over, he says, ‘Oh, my neighbor bought a great car.’” To do that, we needed to do these high-profile media events. That’s why we started the Super Bowl. We’ve been on the Emmys and the Academy Awards.
How will Audi continue to distinguish itself from Mercedes, BMW and Lexus?
We’re trying to be a progressive brand. We’re an open-minded brand. We are an innovative brand. We’re unafraid to be witty and humorous. We’re a culturally relevant brand and we’re unafraid to make cultural and societal commentary. All of those things add up to a very different luxury car brand. [Competitors] always do a good job of talking features and technology and product points. They rarely make a cultural commentary.