What Will Be Missing From This Presidential Inauguration? Audi

Automaker That Roadblocked '09 Ceremony Bows Out; Hotel Rooms Still Open, Inaugural Ball Tickets Hawked on Groupon

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In 2009, Audi lined up an unprecedented promotion tied to the U.S. presidential inauguration, whereby its sponsorship of the day's events largely blocked out commercial interruption from other advertisers.

CNN Covers 2009 Inauguration
CNN Covers 2009 Inauguration

Practically any news coverage imaginable the day President Barack Obama was sworn into office, Audi was there. It sponsored a number of broadcast-TV networks, and was also the exclusive sponsor of the streaming broadcasts on major news sites including ABCNews.com, CBSNews.com, MSNBC.com and Washingtonpost.com. Audi bought a full-day sponsorship of Slate.com and was the sole sponsor of The Atlantic's website. The marketer roadblocked print too; Audi was an exclusive sponsor of a special eight-page newspaper section called "Progress is beautiful" in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other major dailies, reaching an estimated 8.6 million readers. On its own website, Audi flagged the "Progress is beautiful" message with "Progress moves forward Jan. 20."

For a German automaker to spend so much around a decidedly American event seemed unusual. At the time, the company's CMO Scott Keogh said sponsoring the day's news was a way to connect with Americans amid a "spirit of progress and innovation that is the core of our corporate DNA."

It would seem appealing to Audi to restage the effort, considering the car maker claimed that the 2009 takeover helped the brand reach more than 30 million people. Yet, come Monday's inauguration, when President Obama will be sworn in for his second term, Audi won't be a part of it.

Executives say its not about the company's performance or cutbacks in marketing; Audi expects to increase annual sales to 1.5 million units earlier than the planned 2015 target date, the automaker said at the Detroit Auto show. And measured-media spending in the U.S. alone behind the brand was about $100 million between January and October of 2012, according to Kantar.

It's just a totally different climate and mood for the country, Loren Angelo, general manager-brand marketing at Audi, told Ad Age.

"America really recognized that election and potentially the inauguration as a real point of change and progressive movement in America," Mr. Angelo said. "We saw from Americans there was a feeling of change regardless of your political affiliation." So when the company looked at the possibility of marketing around President Obama's swearing in, "it fit into what we were looking to talk about at that time." Mr. Angelo added: "It was a progressive moment in the time of America's culture and allowed us to leverage several media platforms to tell Audi's stories."

Today, though, "it's just a different climate," Mr. Angelo said. For one thing, there's not as much excitement around the promise of change as there was the first time, and for another the economic environment is such that there's not. "We see Obama pulling back on elements of the inauguration," he noted, pointing out that even the president himself isn't indulging in much of the celebration there was the last time around. The President is expected to hold one consolidated ball Jan. 21 that replaces nearly a dozen separate events held in the past.

Audi doesn't seem to be alone in feeling like Monday will bring less excitement with it than the event did four years ago. Hotels are still trying to unload the many open rooms in the city, and it's not a good sign that tickets to the Green Inaugural Ball, a black-tie event with will.i.am and the EPA, are being hawked for a discounted price on Groupon. So far the majority of marketing tied to the event is around bar specials, such as Cityscape's "O-Bama-Tini" cocktails, and travel packages, like the Madison Hotel's push that partners with Brooks Brothers for a shopping spree and offers a "social-media butler" to document the event.

In Audi's case, the car maker wants to focus its marketing budget on Super Bowl and key launches of the A6 and A7 later this year. According to Mr. Angelo, the Super Bowl "continues to be a broad awareness-builder for the brand, and the only platform where we can reach 100 million Americans in one day." The brand hopes to take a more sophisticated approach to the Big Game ads compared with its competition.

Said Mr. Angelo: "Audi has always taken the approach of addressing the American audience on our terms and pushing against the traditional way of approaching Super Bowl advertising" and not "sophomoric humor, animals or children or stereotypical Super Bowl creative approaches."

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