Kerri Martin

Director-brand innovation, Volkswagen of America

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Big idea: Making car owners the Mini's best currency

How it came to her: Gauging customer passion

How it's changing her business: Building that owner-advocacy focus into VW programs

As BMW was getting ready to launch the Mini Cooper line in the U.S. in 2002, Kerri Martin-then marketing communications manager at BMW and now head of brand innovation for VW-had a powerful idea. "I knew that we should focus on owners of the Mini as just as important an audience as prospects," she says. "Intuitively, I just knew it was right for Mini right away. Of course, one could argue that Mini needed to build the brand and sell a bunch of cars. But very quickly, owners became the Mini's best currency," says Ms. Martin, who also spent time marketing Harley-Davidson products, and knew far better than many the power of an army of passionate owners. "So we built owner advocacy into the marketing program."

Ms. Martin has brought that perspective with her to VW. "I do believe you need to lead consumers rather than being consumer-led, but there is a huge role for consumer insight at Volkswagen," she says. "Our owners are some of the most passionate, enthusiastic owners on the planet."

For instance, since landing at VW, Ms. Martin says one of the biggest ideas to come from her department has been the decision to manufacture the Fast toy, which was conceived by VW agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky and is featured in new GTI TV spots. "We also gave one to each new GTI owner. As a result of Fast frenzy, there are independent Web sites dedicated to Fast and they sell on eBay for upward of $600. We sold 215,000 Fast-inspired T-shirts to our dealer network in 72 hours, and we have now expanded the Fast line to key chains, life-size Fasts for showrooms and Fast badges for the car."

The auto industry desperately needs that slightly off-the-wall approach to marketing. "At VW, we believe there are only two kinds of companies-brave and dead. We prefer to take the brave route, and risk-taking is encouraged here. We can't stress it enough-in an industry so full of me-too marketing, the risk isn't that your idea will be so different it will fail," says Ms. Martin, who encourages her staff to take chances. "I have a sign outside my office that says, 'Orville Wright did not have a pilot's license.' I'd rather come out with a stinky idea that gets remembered than with advertising that comes across as wallpaper or white noise that no one notices."

And it helps to listen to your gut. Ms. Martin is a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink." "When I read it, I thought, 'Good, this is a real, bona fide, emotional connection, this ability to feel that intuitively, something is or isn't right for the brand." And always, Ms. Martin says, she runs ideas she loves through the toughest test of all: "No matter how good something is, my question always is, 'Could another car company put its logo on this idea?' If the answer is yes, then it's not unique enough."
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