The U.S. bobsled team took home one silver and three bronze medals at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. And BMW scored marketing gold.
Lots of brands ink sponsorship deals around the games, of course. But BMW didn’t just slap its name on the U.S. team’s sleds; it designed them. During commercial breaks, viewers were treated to stylish spots introducing the luxury automaker’s i-series of electric vehicles that sport the same carbon fibers as the bobsleds. Meanwhile, as the competitors raced down the track at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour, NBC commentators dubbed the sleds “The Ultimate Sliding Machines,” making for what USA Today called a “publicity coup” for the brand.
For BMW vp, marketing Trudy Hardy, the games were a personal and professional triumph. She had championed the bobsled initiative during her three years leading BMW of North America’s marketing communications and events operations. Hardy was on hand in Sochi to witness the results, just five months after her promotion to her current job.
Hardy admits to being nervous about the whole thing—a lot was riding on those sleds, to be sure. The Olympics would serve as the launch event for the brand’s entry into the fledgling realm of electric vehicles. Then, there was the inherent uncertainty of the races. “Maybe they don’t win, maybe the sled crashes—all these types of things,” Hardy says. But while there were risks, she adds, there was also an appreciation for “the potential of all the great things that can come out of this.”
Hardy is used to risks. A 13-year veteran of BMW, she has built a reputation as a straight shooter who tends to go with her gut, and understands the road to success has its share of curves. “It took bravery from Trudy and BMW to tell the bobsled story,” says Scott Donaton, chief content officer at Universal McCann, which chronicled the design and testing process for the sleds in Driving on Ice, a documentary that aired on NBC prior to the games and publicized the team’s tough work preparing for the games. “This was an amazing story about the journey, not just about the outcome,” says Donaton.
Likewise, the :60 ad from KBS+ that broke during the opening ceremony and introduced the i-series—BMW’s first all-electric/hybrid, emission-free vehicles—was no ordinary auto spot. Dubbed “Hello Future,” its blue-hued nightscapes and crystal-cool auto imagery were made even more memorable by the voiceover—a 50-year-old recording of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke describing how amazing the future will be. “We just knew as soon as we found that clip of Arthur C. Clarke” that it would work, says Hardy. “It was something that gave us goosebumps—and it still does, every time I watch that spot.” George Peterson, president of the AutoPacific consultancy, lauds “Hello Future” and the i-series work that followed as “compelling” and “alluring” communications.
The approach is paying off. In May, the i3 set a domestic record for plug-in sales during a debut month, with 336. Domestic sales overall so far this year are up by double digits—an improvement even over last year’s record sales for the import.
Will the brand establish a sales peak for the second year running? Hardy puts her faith in Clarke’s powers of prognostication, commenting, “The only thing that we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic.”
View the Brand Genius winner class of 2014:
Paul Crandell, GoPro | Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle | Michelle N. Fernandez, Canon USA | Camille M. Gibson, General Mills | Trudy Hardy, BMW of North America | Matt Jauchius, Nationwide | Quinn Kilbury, Newcastle Brown Ale | David Melançon, Benjamin Moore & Co. | Shane Smith, Vice | Dana White, UFC