A Look Back At BMW’s The Hire, Branded Content In The Dark Days Of Online Video

A Look Back At BMW’s The Hire, Branded Content In The Dark Days Of Online Video

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Back in 2001, Internet video for me was watching movie trailers, and there was no thought that anything longer, or anything of more substance, would be coming along soon.  I very much doubt many people thought they would be seeing high-quality films from top-notch directors online (at least, not legally, and not on demand), and the viability of online video as a major marketing tool certainly would have been at best questionable.  BMW accomplished a major feat of branded content in 2001 with “The Hire,” well before the era of YouTube.  It was tremendously successful, groundbreaking, and excellent in every way.

BMW’s The Hire Shows How Branded Content Should Be Done Today

BMW of North America’s VP of marketing was Jim McDowell, teaming up with their ad agency Fallon Worldwide.  Obviously the vision was to bring in top talent to oversee the films.  David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) was essentially the films’ “show-runner,” responsible for the overall product.

The idea would be to make the product part of the story: associate BMW with excitement, the person driving it as super cool, but above all, make the films with a story in mind first, with subtle branding.  This is something a lot of branded content gets wrong these days.  Like, for instance, Toyota, which in the past year used pretty much the same idea but tips their hand way too much:

That first BMW short film, Ambush, was directed by John Frankenheimer, best known for the original Manchurian Candidate, but almost assuredly hired for his car chase work on 1998’s Ronin. Actor Clive Owen was not known to most American audiences at the time, his biggest film being Croupier, and would only start becoming known the next year with The Bourne Identity.

Fincher regular Andrew Kevin Walker wrote the screenplay.  The man who did the cinematography, Newton Thomas Sigel, is a Bryan Singer (Usual Suspects, X2: X-Men United) guy who also recently shot the exciting “driver” movie Drive.  And many of you might know the name David Van Eyssen, who served as a creative consultant and later would create the Machinima web series RCVR.

Later films would feature directors Ang Lee, Wong Kar Wai, Guy Ritchie, and Alejandro González Iñárritu.  When Fincher had to finish work on his 2002 film Panic Room, brothers and uber-producer/directors Ridley Scott and Tony Scott came in, with John Woo, Joe Carnahan, and Tony Scott himself directing the second season after the first had been such a success.  All in all, 8 short films were produced, and the directors had full control over the finished work, a very bold move.

That’s a tremendous wealth of talent for what pretty much amounts to a gamble.  But BMW wasn’t gambling blind.  This 2002 piece by Tom Hespos at iMedia Connection says:

BMW knew that the average work-hard, play-hard customer was 46 years old, with a median income of about $150,000. Two-thirds were male, married, and had no children. As BMW sliced and diced its market further, an interesting statistic surfaced: Roughly 85% of BMW purchasers used the Internet before purchasing a BMW.

In other words, BMW found who their audience was, found out they were using the Internet, and knew they could create content that their audience would be able to access and would be tremendously excited for.  BMW would provide ads on TV that would direct them to the website.  I particularly remember the TV ad for Guy Ritchie’s Star, the fourth in the series starring Ritchie’s then-wife Madonna:

Here’s the full-length version:

You can tell the difference between a traditional TV ad and branded content with those two videos.  The TV ad certainly wants to let you know about going to the website, but it features the car in dynamic poses in the editing.  The full-length version tells a story and seamlessly blends the car’s role in it.

Did BMW’s The Hire Work For Sales?

That’s the important thing, right?  Otherwise, you’re making content that people love on the whole, but aren’t translating that love into dollars.  Well, 2001 sales rose 12% from 2000.  2 million people registered on the BMW site, more than half asking for more information via e-mail.  And a whopping 94% of the people who saw the films recommended them to others.

Oh yeah, here’s this ad again:

We praise the Volkswagen “The Force” ad for it being a well-made, emotionally-connecting piece of video that aired during the Super Bowl and became a big YouTube hit.  It has over 48 million views.  But this very interesting article by Malcolm Slade at Epiphany points out what many of you already know.  The ad didn’t do much for selling the Passat.  Did you even know it was for that particular car?  As a piece of entertainment, we really enjoyed it.  But it didn’t show off what the Passat could do, or why anyone should buy one.  And this is the medium in which you have full license to go overboard on the name of the product, what it does, and why you need it.

So why did the BMW ad campaign with branded content succeed?  We don’t really know what the BMW can do after watching these short films.  We’re certainly not going to get caught in an alley being chased by bad guys and then use the power of the BMW to crash into our pursuers going in reverse and push their car out of the way.  Since they knew their audience, and knew their audience would A) see a TV ad telling them to go to the website, B) go to the obvious BMW website and watch the movies, they were selling a lifestyle.  They were selling to men who looked at themselves as adventurers, the cool ones.  Who is Clive Owen in these films?  He’s a driver, sure, but he also appears to have no responsibilities other than getting into visceral situations afforded to him by driving this car.

Remember, most of the audience are married men, mid-forties, lots of income, and importantly, no children.  Those who want to hop into a car and not have to worry about a child seat, to look good, to have style.

A few months ago many of the online video blogs, including our own, took a look at what Red Bull was doing with their branded content.  They are the ones being praised with the way they do it, and the model is much like BMW’s for “The Hire.”  They show some Red Bull stuff here and there, but it’s subtle, and what’s being sold is the lifestyle of a Red Bull consumer.  This ad was all over the place last summer:

It’s extreme sports, it’s a life.  There’s a brief drink of Red Bull.  Awesome life continues.

Branded Content Success Requires Skill And Some Luck, Like All Things

So what we learn from BMW’s “The Hire,” way back in 2001, is that you need to know who your audience is, are they on the Internet, and can you sell content without being too obvious?  The whole point of branded content is to get people watching and staying in one place for a longer period than 30 seconds, and selling a story with your product by making the it useful to the characters in the story, but without the sales pitch.  The content must be compelling, first and foremost.

One snag in the BMW success story is that despite rolling out 8 successful videos that increased sales, they decided to end the campaign because the ads were so expensive.  Perhaps even with a sales spike, the money going into the ads (remember, top-notch talent and production value) was too steep.  And BMW is not, I don’t think, the type of company that would be rewarded with making ads that are low-rent quality.   We’ve discussed YouTube myths and how expensive tastes in production value are not required, but for BMW, that’s exactly the type of thing they want to advertise.  They want to put out content that looks made of money, for people made of money.  Unfortunately for them, it was a bit too expensive in the long run.

Still, the successful blueprint is there.  BMW discovered it for online video over 10 years ago.


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