Steven Althaus's moment of digital truth came this past spring. BMW's global director of brand management stood in front of top management, telling them the automaker was about to use a drift mob to help market their new car, the M235i.
Five professional drivers were set to go behind the wheel of the M235is and drift—or drive at high speeds, hit the brakes, and turn the steering wheel to spin the car abruptly—around a traffic circle in Cape Town, South Africa. Their aim was to simulate a flash mob; a staged but seemingly spontaneous performance.
BMW executives fired off questions to Althaus that veered toward disbelief. "I presented the idea of a drift mob and they said: 'Is this really going to work?' I had to say, ‘I don’t know. Nobody’s done it before,’" Althaus recalls.
BMW wouldn’t launch the video as a commercial, but pushed it out through /DRIVE, a popular YouTube channel dedicated to cars. The drift mob was part of a proposed new social media marketing strategy for BMW. Up until that point, the company had done a reasonable job with the first wave of social media tools.
"Of course we’re on Facebook, Twitter . . . " says Sebastian Schwiening, a 29-year-old digital marketing manager. He started at BMW in 2010, fresh out of the University of Kiel business school in Germany.
But as of early 2014, the company hadn’t so much as put a Twitter hashtag into its advertising. Schwiening occasionally found himself having awkward conversations with senior marketing management over social media tactics he was trying, like a short video of two BMWs kissing that went up on Instagram. The video didn’t fit in with BMW’s self-image, but it did draw 70,000 hearts, Instagram’s version of a like.
Hearts weren’t in upper management’s lexicon, though. "Normally, we just report use on things like our channels and website," Schwiening says. "For me it’s tricky to explain that it’s better to have uplift in social engagement than clicks on our sites."
Althaus says he was intrigued by what Schwiening and BMW's online marketing department head, Florian Resinger, were trying with social media. Althaus had noticed during the 2014 Super Bowl that almost all of the other advertisers—14 out of 20—were using hashtags in their commercials. He wanted to see BMW adopt hashtags in its branding.
How could BMW explore this? Companies know the risks of engaging on social media—they can damage their brands by pandering to trends, while consumers can say damaging things about brands that go out over a specific hashtag. Adopting hashtags meant BMW would loosen control of its brand messaging.
Like most companies facing risk, BMW executives look for data to back up decisions. It could pull market research data, which showed how people were consuming more information via online channels like YouTube.
But the online marketing group had some valuable research of its own. In 2012, as online marketers pushed for more social engagement, BMW funded a research relationship with MIT’s Center for Digital Business, which looks at how traditional companies can engage more effectively with digital technologies. Senior management would be apt to work with MIT, as it's a name that carries weight.
Schwiening had worked with MIT on a couple of pilot projects, looking at what happens when consumers talk about products with other consumers. One project in particular used an iPhone app Directr, which mixed professional storyboarding templates and video snippets and let people mix in their own iPhone video and photos. MIT used Directr—since acquired by YouTube—to run a pilot project with several hundred people making and sharing BMW-based videos, and measuring their reaction and engagement with mobile video from different sources.
MIT researchers found what you might expect. "When people are talking BMW among each other and not from us, it is more trustworthy to them," says Schwiening.
But the research also showed surprising results, says Renee Richardson Gosline, an assistant professor of marketing at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She studies how brands form relationships with consumers.
According to Gosline, successful social media engagement doesn't depend on the "cool kids," or the most popular people. What matters is who has the best stories. "If your story is compelling enough, that story will be picked up, and the story itself will become a node," Gosline says.
Gosline says she's also surprised by the depth of the relationship some consumers form with BMW, which can rival those they form with their pets. "It’s been a fascinating area to see how the car is so much more than a brand, and how people can imbue these emotional and humanistic properties to a product," she adds.
This research supported the pitch for drift mobs, presented as part of a Twitter campaign called #bmwstories. Althaus’s pitch was people loved BMW cars, and loved telling stories about their experiences with their cars. BMW could tell its own stories, but so could anyone. Talking about this campaign with top management was "tricky," Althaus says, but ultimately they approved the campaign, which launched in May 2014.
/DRIVE debuted the epic drift mob on July 29. Two weeks later, the 1 minute 40 second video had 12.3 million views, and topped AdWeek’s VideoWatch chart of the top 10 YouTube brand videos.
Plus, when viewers raised questions about whether the elaborately choreographed drifting was faked, other viewers rose to BMW’s defense. They noted a video posted by a journalist who was a passenger in one of the cars that flipped from horizontal to landscape in a way that couldn’t be scripted.
The video worked because it was a fun twist on something with a big fan following, says Dan Scholz, director of digital marketing at YouGov, a market research company in New York. Scholz called the epic drift mob "perfect" for people like him who are interested in cars. He also says the drift mob is an interesting twist on drifting, a phenomenon on YouTube that draws tens of millions of views.
Scholz says it’s hard to measure the impact of social media engagement on sales, but YouGov’s BrandIndex Meter suggests the epic drift mob has increased word of mouth chatter about the brand, as well as the possibility of buying a BMW car by millennials.
Not that BMW has unlocked a hidden secret for online engagement, says Scholz. He agrees with Gosline that most products don’t inspire people to form relationships with them.
But other types of companies have formed good social media relationships with people. Taco Bell, for instance, uses a consistently snarky tone on social media that seems to connect with customers—especially millennials—which allowed it to build a following on the short messaging app Snapchat.
BMW’s Resinger says he wishes social media engagement is a talent he could do on demand. He says if something is even a little off, it becomes irrelevant. He constantly has to tell people not to expect a concept to go viral.
"If I knew how to do this on a daily basis, I would not be sitting here," he says. "I’d be a number one chartbreaker doing it for every brand."