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Luxury auto makers such as BMW have turned to online video to sell their machines.
Luxury auto makers such as BMW have turned to online video to sell their machines.

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The engine gave its libidinous roar and in a squeal of rubber, the expensive sports car hurtled toward a concrete wall. But as that BMW narrowly slid through a hole in the wall, the marketing executives behind that flashy promotional video worried they, too, might be flirting with disaster.

Their anxiety stemmed from the fact that the luxury car maker was attempting to re-establish the high-performance image of its brand using a medium that did not have much cachet: online video. You know – the stuff of silly cats and surreal candy campaigns.

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“There was a lot of discussion about whether this was the right move, and I was very anxious,” said Marc Belcourt, brand communications manager at BMW Canada.

Since the video launch in June, 2011, however, his view – and that of his competitors – has shifted. The “Walls” video that introduced the BMW 1 Series M Coupe to Canada has shot up above 4 million views on Google Inc.’s YouTube site. More importantly, along with a companion video that showed the car drifting around a helipad high above street level, the video is driving up the bottom line.

Sales of the Series M rose 12 per cent in 2011 compared to 2010, and last year was the most successful sales year ever for BMW Canada.

In the first half of 2011, Mercedes-Benz had outsold BMW every month. In June, the month the video launched, BMW outsold its luxury car rival by 700 vehicles and continued to outsell it each month for the rest of the year.

The success led BMW Canada to launch another video, “Bullet,” this summer. It has also reached more than 4 million views, and the car it features – the M5 – has exceeded its sales targets for this year by 63 per cent.

The BMW case underscores that perceptions are slowly changing among marketers – and online video is growing up.

“It’s not dogs on skateboards – the content has really improved,” said Marshall Self, head of media solutions at Google Canada.

Canadians are consistently ravenous consumers of online video compared to their global counterparts. According to comScore, online video viewing in Canada was up 58 per cent last year and YouTube viewing was up 170 per cent. Tablets are driving more video consumption, as are social media platforms, where compelling video content is very attractive for sharing.

“There’s a perception that the young and the digitally sophisticated, online video’s going to resonate more with them. But for this – a little older, more affluent – we were a bit surprised,” said Kris Davis, a senior vice-president with Media Experts, which did the media buy for the BMW campaign.

The firm has in recent months begun using new software, called Pointlogic, that helps it determine the media mix for a campaign to best reach its target audience.

In the case of BMW’s most recent campaign, the target was men 45 to 64 with household income above $300,000 with an interest in architecture and design and who keep abreast of fashion. The software determined that it could influence roughly half of that group with online video – and that came second only to magazine inserts. Television ads were determined to influence half that many, and banner ads online would influence only 5 per cent.

The agency also supported the video with outreach to influential automotive bloggers, placement in movie theatres and elevator digital screens, and with online, magazine and billboard ads driving people to the site.

But it was a risk: protecting the luxury image is important for auto makers such as BMW, because while sales of their top-performance vehicles like the M are relatively small, their marketing creates a halo effect for the whole brand.

Because the Series M is not a huge part of BMW’s sales, however, the amount required for a TV campaign “would have been an irresponsible use of money,” according to Mr. Belcourt – especially after the downturn of 2007, which hit luxury car makers hard and made it more difficult to fight for marketing budgets, he said. The initial Series M campaign had a relatively modest budget of $900,000.

And while TV remains incredibly influential, higher-end brands are starting to wake up to the potential of online video. According to research by Google, light TV viewers (who are watching video more online) tend to have higher incomes than the heaviest TV users.

With the success of BMW Canada’s online video campaign, global competitors are starting to jump into the fray. At around the same time “Bullet” was released this summer, Mercedes-Benz released its own spot featuring a pro golfer shooting a ball that a driver catches in a convertible’s open roof (the same message of performance). And last month Mitsubishi released a video that appears to be a spoof of the BMW “Bullet” ad, smashing through a chandelier and a stack of wine glasses under the label, “Unpretentious.”

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