NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON MINI - Mini employs the innovations of the web to promote its own. Alasdair Reid investigates the success Mini has found using internet advertising

In theory, the internet should be a very promising place to punt cars. After all, it's where people go to do their research when they're in the market for a new set of wheels - so there's every chance you might be able to hit them with some advertising and stimulate even more interest when they're in exactly the right frame of mind.

On the other hand it's a proposition that some in the motor trade seem to find difficult to take seriously, judging by the tone of certain internet-orientated TV work that has come out of this sector.

Those flimsy ads with the little plastic people and the toy cars, for instance; or Griff Rhys Jones going online and buying a whole transporter full of Vauxhalls by mistake.

But some have taken the internet very seriously indeed. Back in spring 2001, the launch campaign for the Volvo S60 took place exclusively online - and the campaign featured a barrage of online formats, including pop-ups, rich-media executions, transitional and superstitial banners, an online driving game plus all sorts of WAP, PDA and e-mail bells and whistles.

There is a danger, though, of taking yourself too seriously - and for some companies who pride themselves on building seriously serious motors, it is more than a temptation. The mean machine approach is sleek, aloof and tends to evoke all sorts of shared high-tech values - "the internet is a modern marvel, so are our cars sort of approach. Evidenced, for instance, in much of BMW's work.

All of which tends to make you appreciate what Mini gets up to online (last week it unveiled its latest work for the launch of the new Mini Cooper S). The unique thing about the Mini approach is the way it hits a happy medium - and happy is definitely the operative word here. Mini continues to combine leading-edge innovation with a consistently tongue-in-cheek approach.

And if you're sceptical about the innovative bit, don't forget that Mini claims to be the first brand to stream a TV commercial online. It was also one of the first to utilise Eyeblaster technology - it used the technique to make it seem as if site homepages were being attacked by menacing Martians or disgruntled zombies. Only, of course, for Mini to save the day -pop-ups would offer viewers an opportunity to destroy the alien mothership, the joke being that one shot and the game's over.

In another execution, and in support of press campaigns, the online work has pioneered the placing of bizarre fake headlines in the editorial content of selected sites - these headlines acted as text links to partially animated versions of the press executions.

The online centrepiece of the latest launch campaign for the Cooper S is a games page that pastiches most computer games formats. You can drive the Mini through loads of hazards - and all to get to the chip shop. Traffic (sorry, there's really no other word) will be driven to this site by supporting banner and superstitial activity.

According to BMW Mini's marketing manager, Emma Lowndes, the internet has become a truly integral part of Mini's whole marketing philosophy.

"It's hard to over-emphasise the importance of the internet, she explains.

"For instance, it's our biggest source of leads. The Mini has retro styling cues, but it is a very innovative and advanced car, so with all the media stuff we do, we're looking to do things that are really fresh - it's important to convey a contemporary image. And it's also important to do entertaining things because the Mini is a car that makes you grin. You can do some of that on TV, but TV is first and foremost about big production values, whereas on the internet you can do stuff that is more cheeky and irreverent."

David Moynihan, the communications strategist at Mini's agency, WCRS, insists that this is something which transcends the usual cliches.

"For Mini, the internet has always been a natural environment and it's more about a mindset than about social demographics. With Mini the desire is to be different and to do something that no other car would do or want to do, he says.

It's all good stuff - but can others in the marketplace learn from it?

Are some marques more suited to the internet than others? Some would argue that the car sector as a whole hasn't quite got its head round this.

Ajaz Ahmed, the chairman of AKQA, argues that most car manufacturers still have a lot to learn.

"No manufacturer has developed anything compelling enough on the internet to generate awareness, so TV and other broadcast media is probably best for that, he states. "Where the internet is very cost effective is in terms of generating high-quality sales leads and helping the customer to become educated about the car before visiting a dealership.

"However, most car manufacturers lack the vision and conviction to create meaningful, useful websites for their customers, opting instead for the easy brochures-with-buttons approach."

But Moynihan believes that Mini is continuing to prove just what can be achieved online - and the internet's growing strength as a branding medium could be crucial here.

"We are talking about people who are individual, spirited and young at heart. The internet is established in their portfolio of media usage. People aren't about to purchase online - they want to be sold to even though they've done the comparisons and that's where the dealer comes in. But the internet will become even more important as more of the population get access to high-speed internet services. It becomes closer to TV advertising, he concludes.


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