PHOTOS: UNIPLAN HONG KONG LTD.
When Audi first wheeled into China in 1998, its stretch A6 quickly became the go-to limo for powerful bureaucrats and influential party officials. In fact, one estimate placed purchases from government agencies as accounting for one-third of all Audi A6 sedans sold in China. Ensconced in the country with the imprimatur of government behind it, Audi seemed to have left competing brands, such as Mercedes Benz and BMW, behind in a cloud of dust.
Then, there was an unexpected pileup: In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped a proverbial noose around corrupt government officials and tightened it hard, turning the A6 – and by extension the Audi brand – into a symbol of sleaze and corruption. Reversing course on that misfortune would be arduous enough, but there was an even bigger, grimmer challenge looming for Audi. Since the company's debut in China almost a generation before, the age of the average Chinese car buyer had plunged to 35 years old. Those boxy black A6 sedans, once de rigueur symbols of cash and clout, were now obligatory icons of stuffy, middle-aged bureaucrats. Shanghai-based Hurun Research Institute found that of the eight major automotive luxury brands, Audi had the most defined image as the transportation of mature government workers, while BMW was seen as the car for the young nouveau riche.
For Audi Hong Kong, finding a sizable-enough event venue in a city where the average living space per capita is around 160 square feet was a monumental challenge. The company ultimately settled on a 20,000-square-foot sound stage to host its Q7 launch event.
For Audi, these changes could have meant a financial version of a head-on collision. According to research firm IHS Inc., the year before the 2014 crackdown, sales in China had accounted for about 59 percent of the net profit for Volkswagen AG, Audi's parent company. Thus, when the company was about to launch its Q7 SUV last October in Hong Kong, it was understandably eager to reap all the success it could from the SUV, the one automotive niche in China that was zooming while all others were slowing to a crawl.
To haul in profits the size of an SUV itself, however, Audi would have to buff and polish its lusterless image. And to do that successfully, the company knew its marketing would invariably have to address the deep-rooted reasons rugged SUVs appealed to Chinese consumers. For example, McKinsey and Co. Inc.'s study "Upward Mobility: The Future of China's Premium Car Market" found safety was the most important concern in buying a premium car such as an SUV. But there were other compelling reasons stirring in the mix that motivated potential buyers; 30 percent cited "reflection of social status," while 27 percent mentioned "self-indulgence" when explaining why they aspired to an SUV. Lastly, the additional passenger space SUVs offer attracted those buyers thinking of having a second child, a major consideration for many purchasers since Chinese authorities lifted the decades-old one-child policy for families in 2016.
Audi's Event Strategy
Taking over a famed movie sound stage, Audi Hong Kong thrilled guests with Hollywood-worthy effects, such as the Q7 climbing a 35-degree incline while scenes of rugged terrains played on the screen behind it.
Audi and its event company, Uniplan Hong Kong Ltd., decided the key to rebranding the Q7 was through an event in which a large crowd of influencers congregated in a physical venue that would allow the automaker to focus on the car's cut-diamond elegance, Kevlar-vest safety, and spaciousness – features that would allow Audi to change its image in attendees' minds from mundane to mind blowing. "The SUV market in Hong Kong and China is mature and saturated with competitors," says Crispin Dohrmann, account manager with Uniplan. "We needed to focus our customers' attention on elements of the product and brand that are unique to Audi."
Choosing an event wasn't a standard fallback or random choice, however: Chinese car buyers are, as it turns out, influenced by several marketing factors that distinguish them from buyers in other countries. For example, car-related events can persuade at least 48 percent of prospective car buyers to purchase a given automobile, according to the McKinsey study. Also, few marketing approaches in China can rival word-of-mouth recommendations from families and friends, which two-thirds of China's consumers rely on before making purchases, compared with only one-third of U.S. consumers.
But an event strategy is often only as good as the venue in which it's executed. For Audi, finding a sizable-enough location in Hong Kong, where the average living space per capita is around 160 square feet, was a monumental challenge. Finding few settings that could handle the anticipated 900 to 1,000 guests in an area as crowded as a clown car, the company decided to go to the movies – the movie studios, that is. Shaw Brothers Ltd., the largest film production company in Hong Kong, had a 20,000-square-foot sound stage expansive enough to handle the projected number of guests.
Two photo booths offered guests a chance to create pictures they could customize with Audi-branded photo frames and then share on social media.
With the event space set, Audi next compiled a list of 800 current owners and potential buyers from its Hong Kong customer database and dealership network, as well as roughly 100 media reps, such as those from Car and Driver Hong Kong magazine. Each was sent either an email or hard-copy invitation that suggested a high-octane evening with sumptuous food and extravagant entertainment would be in store for them. Enticing the invitees even further, Audi added it would award one person a trip to Finland to attend the Audi driving experience, where the winner would learn to pilot several of the carmaker's vehicles on landscapes of ice and snow where even woolly mammoths might fear to tread.
If Audi's strategic schematic for the event was as detailed as the Q7's dashboard, its goals were as blunt as a bumper: escalate sales of the Q7, increase the brand's number of followers on Facebook and Instagram, and generate publicity.
Auto Body Experience
When the guests began arriving at the Audi Q7 Launch Event last October, it was instantly clear the night would be as colorful and choreographed as any of the Shaw Bros.' famed rock-'em, sock-'em martial arts films, and as stylish as an old-fashioned Hollywood premiere. Guests approaching the massive rectangular event space first saw the Audi logo projected onto the side of the sound stage, followed by more projections of the Q7, as well as older Q5 and Q3 models. Members of the 100-strong staff, recruited from Audi dealerships and Uniplan, greeted attendees individually at the entrance and handed each a radio-controlled wristband that would come into play later that evening.
Once inside, attendees could mingle in the faux snow-covered Ice Lounge in which rested a 3-D Audi logo measuring roughly 3 feet tall and carved out of frozen water like the nearby bar. Guests nibbled on any of five appetizers, including wagyu beef/sushi rice hors d'oeuvres. The elegance of the fare accentuated the sophistication of a Q7 positioned nearby. Frosted with artificial snow, the SUV was open so guests could check out its Bang & Olufsen A/S/Bose Corp. sound system and its Virtual Cockpit, a 12.3-inch configurable display that replaces all the old physical gauges and allows drivers to create full-screen 3-D maps. Both the frigid Ice Lounge and snow-covered SUV kept the dual theme of the Q7's safety on treacherous roads and the prize awaiting one fortunate attendee firmly in the crowd's collective mind.
Guests could acquire even more in-depth info on the Q7 not through the usual literature that is as dull as a software end-user agreement, but via the high-tech Magic Glass Wall. Appealing to Chinese automobile buyers' love of up-to-the-nanosecond gadgetry, the 6.4-by-3.2-foot partition let attendees choose any of five subjects, e.g., new technology and lightweight construction, by touching an icon on the translucent screen, which triggered related videos.
The Wheel Deal
A screen of nearly 3,000 square feet behind the Q7 ran footage of a snowstorm and other extreme weather, implying the SUV's ability to handle any climate or road condition.
With the crowd satiated and slaked with information, it was time for the evening's big reveal. Positioned in the middle of the floor was a stage roughly 125 feet long and 25 feet high, with a ramp set at a precarious 35-degree angle. Behind the stage, on a screen of almost 3,000 square feet, 10 projectors set on an overhead truss broadcast Audi logos, scenes of the Q7 racing down highways, and an animated snowstorm.
A duo of BMX riders then soared onto the stage, performing plies and arabesques on wheels, snubbing, then surpassing, mere gravity. When the Q7 zipped onto the stage, two rollerbladers and six dancers spilled out of the SUV, a dramatic entrance that not coincidently showcased the roominess of the vehicle. For several minutes, the dancers, rollerbladers, and riders flung themselves across the stage and in the air as swiftly as a flock of birds. The Q7, like an eagle seeking its perch, climbed the incline with a growl of engine and a swoosh of ascent. "They really integrated their brand with technology in a memorable way," said Corporate Event Awards judges. "The build-out of the stage, the visuals, and the entertainment were all arresting."
Following the reveal of the Q7, Joey Yung, the queen of Cantopop, a style of music almost as inseparable from Hong Kong as jazz is from New Orleans, took the stage. With a beat as springy as a bouncy house, Yung regaled the crowd for 20 minutes with a four-song set, while pulsating colors and abstract patterns flashed on the enormous screen behind her as a kind of visual chorus. As the crowd bopped to the music, the wristbands handed out to guests when they entered the event blazed like a swarm of polychrome fireflies. Controlled by a wireless DMX lighting system using radio signals, the wristbands' light patterns were tightly synced to the beat of Yung's songs. After the concert, they lit up in various sequences until, one by one, the wristbands went dark. When just one wristband remained lit, Audi announced that the wearer of that band would be traveling to the subzero climate of Finland as the winner of the Audi driving experience.
As the event wound down, guests could immortalize the evening at either of two photo booths and then share the Audi-branded pictures via their personal social-media accounts.
The Light Stuff
Driven to Succeed
Registering attendees received a radio-controlled wristband that lit up in sync with the music of Cantopop star Joey Yung. Later, the last guest whose wristband remained lit while all the others went dark was awarded a trip to an adventure-driving school in Finland.
Built as solidly as the Q7 itself and with as much attention to detail, Audi's launch event rolled in with results. It generated roughly $1 million worth of PR exposure by Audi's estimate, gained the company more than 2,000 new followers on Facebook and Instagram, and, most importantly, helped spur near-record sales in China that following December, just two months after the epic launch.
According to an old advertising slogan, "Everyone dreams of an Audi." By pressing guests' purchase-sensitive buttons, Audi breathed new life into that aspirational tagline and made sure everyone saw the Q7 as the kind of car that dreams are made of. E