Mr. McDowell, VP-marketing and sales at Mini USA, said the niche auto marketer has happily ceded some control of the brand to its enthusiastic owners.
"I can't say we're completely in control," and that's by design, Mr. McDowell said in a presentation at the Association of National Advertisers' annual conference here, where consumer control has become today's recurring theme.
Mini, part of BMW of North America, does whatever it can to foster bonds among the owner, his or her car and other Mini owners. Mr. McDowell noted 60% of Mini buyers order their cars made to spec, and a website keeps them current on where their car stands during the three months or more it takes to build and ship a Mini.
In an interview before the conference, Mr. McDowell said he sees his mission as "building a sense of community" among owners. "Our owners are extroverted," he said. "They form communities and they are extremely creative." In fact, more than a third of owners name their cars, he told Ad Age. Mini owners "have a special relationship with their cars and we want to nurture that."
"We know the fact that Mini owners are very open in a world that's very closed," he said at the conference.
One of Mini's marketing tools: Owners can get a Visa card with a photo image of their specific vehicle. "It's almost like showing ... baby pictures," Mr. McDowell said.
Mr. McDowell compared Mini to Apple's Macintosh as both took a complex technology and made it appealing and approachable.
Ships limited numbers
In his presentation, he noted Mini has a different issue from rival auto sellers: Mini is capacity constrained at its U.K. factory, and the 40,000 cars it ships annually to the U.S. sell without incentives.
About 93% of Mini owners recommend the car to their friends, Mr. McDowell said.
By the time Mr. McDowell arrived as the top dog at Mini USA in April 2005, the brand had already enjoyed plenty of success since its 2002 return.
The former longtime VP-marketing of BMW of North America stepped in after one of the auto industry's most creative and successful launches from Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami. Within months of his arrival, the shop bolted for the larger Volkswagen of America account. Undaunted, he and his team tapped Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, Sausalito, Calif., which is carrying on Mini's untraditional marketing approach.
In August, Mini mailed "covert kits" to owners in the form of black boxes containing a fake book titled "A Dizzying Look at the Awesomeness of Small." A hidden compartment in the book held paper eyeglasses and a paper card with punch holes around the shape of a Mini. Owners could use those tools to read special coded messages in magazine ads that directed them to a website.
Cross-country drive for owners
In his presentation, Mr. McDowell discussed another way Mini is connecting with its community: It invited owners to join the brand's first "Mini Takes the States" cross-country drive, either for stops in their areas or alternately for a 14-day, 3,000-mile trip that ended Sept. 4.
Mr. McDowell said attendance topped expectations, as Mini figured it would attract 3,200 to 3,300 Mini owners. "But we had closer to 5,000 and 75 of them for the whole trip."
Two couples opted to marry along the trip, and a third couple renewed their vows for their 20-year anniversary. One of the couples was drawn to each other because each owned a Mini, he said. "Something about Mini makes people think of love."
Mini's strong connection with customers is somewhat akin to what General Motors Corp.'s Saturn did in its early years. In an audience Q&A after his presentation, Mr. McDowell called Saturn a "very noble experiment" but faulted GM for, years back, not refreshing Saturn's lineup. "You have to constantly renew the product," he said, adding that Mini will keep renewing its offering to help keep its community engaged -- and buying.