When BMW released its series of online films, it was hailed for reinventing branded content. That was six years ago - where does it go next? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is audio books. The latest chapter of BMW's entertainment strategy is a deal that sees the car manufacturer linking up with the publisher Random House to produce a series of stories that visit-ors to bmw-audiobooks.com can download as free podcasts.
The car manufacturer says it is extending its previous marketing efforts with an effective way to reach an audience through entertainment. The jury is out, though: many in marketing feel the books are simply a low-rent version of the far more expensive films.
Richard Hudson, the general manger of marketing communications at BMW UK explains the thinking behind the initiative: "Unsurprisingly, the BMW audio books did cost less than the films to make. That said, the same level of attention, creative rigour and evaluation of writing talent took place with BMW audio books as with BMW films. In the audio book marque, the quality of the storylines, authors and production would stand among the other premium productions of all the established publishing houses."
The books are either thrillers or crime stories. Four authors with varying styles of writing were chosen: Karin Slaughter, a best-selling American crime writer; James Flint, a British novelist; Don Winslow, a California-based crime novelist, and finally Simon Kernick, who writes gritty London-based fiction.
BMW made only one request to the authors: each had to include a BMW car in their plotline, albeit subtly, the manufacturer says.
For instance, in Winslow's effort, Beautiful Ride, the lead character has just bought a new BMW Z4 convertible.
So how do the audio books fit into the wider BMW marketing communications plan? Hudson explains that the new initiative is only one component of BMW's strategy and does not necessarily mean the car manufacturer is taking a new direction. But, he adds: "BMW audio books is another innovative marketing communication that was inspired by the success of the BMW films. It takes quite a traditional creative process and twists it into a unique offer for a difficult-to-reach but cultured audience."
Whether the audio books will replicate the success of the films is another matter. Created by Fallon Minneapolis under the watch of the then executive creative director, David Lubars, the films married high production values with big-name directors (Guy Richie, David Fincher, John Woo and Tony Scott all got behind the camera for the project) and had an equally impressive dusting of stars: Madonna, Clive Owen and Mickey Rourke all did a turn.
Andy Lear, the planning director who works on Mercedes at Campbell Doyle Dye, explains why he feels the audio books fail to live up to the standard set by the films: "The films worked because they had star appeal, novelty value, were easily digestible at around three minutes long and showed the cars doing some very cool stuff.
"In that sense, the audio books are a pale imitation, scoring only on their slight novelty value.
"They are a brave attempt at doing something different, but little more than that."
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AGENCY - Jonathan Hill, head of innovation, Meme, WCRS
"BMW audio books is not a marketing gimmick. It is an original way to engage with BMW's target audience. We know that literature is of interest to our audience and so audio books seemed an effective way for BMW to reach that audience.
"BMW audio books carries on the success of BMW films into a genre of entertainment that we know is high on the list of interests of potential BMW drivers.
"We chose the thriller/crime genre as it offered continuity with BMW films and the opportunity for plenty of action. We chose Random House as our partner because of its range of writers and its openness to developing new ideas."
MOTORING JOURNALIST - Rob Aherne, editor, Autocar
"I think it's a great idea. After all, where do you go after BMW films? What I particularly like is the fact the books have been designed to work in your car and fit in around your journey. Contextually, that makes a lot more sense to me than watching a film in the comfort of your home.
"Ultimately, I think the books will stand or fall on how original and entertaining they are, rather than on the concept itself."
CONSULTANT - Mike Moran, managing partner, The Orchard Consultancy
"Car marketers rightly have an obsession with product, which is why, for a long time, online interactive was a problem, with its clunky operation and download performance.
"Broadband and BMW changed all that with its excellent The Hire film series. One hundred million people viewed the movies.
"Having listened to all 51 painful minutes of Beautiful Ride, the first in the audio book follow-up, I shall be amazed if more than 100 listen to one through to the end.
"The words 'crass' and 'desperate' sum it up. A BMW audio book is the answer to a question no-one is asking. I fail to see how this fits the rest of its UK strategy."
COMMS PLANNER - Andrew Stephens, partner, Goodstuff
"On the face of it, this is a great idea. Adding warmth and feeling to a brand built on functional superiority makes strategic sense, and using imagination to recreate the experience of The Ultimate Driving Machine is potentially very powerful.
"It's also encouraging to see a brand known for its polished advertising to be at the leading edge of branded content.
"However, the first book reads like a dealership brochure meets Miami Vice. Nice piece of customer relationship marketing, but not sure it's more than that.
"That said, compared with the appalling waste of money that is the Audi TV Channel, it is brilliant."