BMW is learning that what distinguishes the ultimate driving machine can be a matter of taste.
To win over the growing ranks of wealthy car buyers who care more about technology than horsepower or heritage -- think Tesla fans -- the German brand is delivering its message through a new marketing vehicle: the i8.
BMW has put the $136,650 plug-in hybrid sports car at the center of a national marketing campaign called "BMW Innovations," which started Sept. 1. Its goal is to cast a glow from the i8's technology halo over the entire BMW lineup -- and increase sales of bread-and-butter products such as the 3-series sedan and X3 crossover.
"Innovation is at the core of everything we do," Trudy Hardy, VP-marketing at BMW of North America, said in a statement on the campaign, which also includes incentives -- ranging from $500 for a base 3 series to $2,000 for a 7 series, 6 series or 328i sedan -- called "innovations credits."
One of the new TV spots, "Looking Forward," focuses on the i8's full-color head-up display, which projects the speedometer and turn-by-turn navigation instructions onto the windshield to keep the driver's eyes on the road. It does so, a narrator says, "even when you're driving the BMW 3 series" -- and voila, the i8 visually morphs into BMW's classic sports sedan, which also offers the head-up display.
A second spot touts the Surround View monitor in the i8, which stitches images from four cameras (one in the front, one in the rear and two built into the side mirrors) into a 360-degree overhead view to aid parking and other delicate maneuvers.
The system "keeps you fully aware of the road around you," says the narrator, the camera panning to a crossover, "even when you're driving the BMW X3."
The commercials were made by New York-based Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners, BMW of North America's agency of record.
Though the campaign is national, BMW is pushing the i8 hardest around Los Angeles and San Francisco, the most active markets for electric vehicles in the U.S., and places where high-tech gadgets have become a powerful status symbol.
BMW says that neither the i8 nor its cousin, the i3 electric city car, was explicitly designed to compete with cars from Silicon Valley EV upstart Tesla Motors Inc. Still, BMW wants to put pressure on Tesla's Model S sedan, which is giving European luxury cars, historically a must-have accessory for California movers and shakers, a run for their money.
"We will sell a lot of i3 and i8 cars in the San Francisco Bay Area," BMW of North America CEO Ludwig Willisch told Automotive News in May. "The i8 appeals to the sports car driver that wants to look forward and see what is next."
Mr. Willisch handed off the keys to the first U.S.-bound i8s during an August ceremony coinciding with the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, held annually along the California coast south of San Francisco.
Among the first buyers was Tony Fadell, who was development chief for the iPod and iPhone before leaving Apple Inc. to form the company Nest Labs, which offers a smart thermostat as its first product.
Mr. Fadell had praised the i8 last year when Bloomberg asked famous designers to talk about their "favorite things." Part of the appeal to him was that it was so unlike what a car company would be expected to sell.
"An amazing concept car made it to production without modification -- which is rare," Bloomberg quoted Mr. Fadell as saying. "Bold design plus bold vehicle technology."
--Gabe Nelson is a reporter with Automotive News