Commentary by Jonah Bloom

BMW Films Was The Result of A Marketer Asking A Smart Question

Southwest Airlines, VW Have Also Shown Value of Big Thinking

By Published on .

Journalists, for all that we might be cynical, muckraking, liberal lefties (incidentally, how does the media's largely uncritical relaying of government and big-business messages qualify as leftism?), know a little
Jonah Bloom, editor of Ad Age
about the importance of questions. The best stories are almost always those that answer the most pertinent questions; bad questions usually result in an information deficit, or a piece of press release prose.

So it goes with marketers also: The wrong question often begets a marketing mistake.

In recent conversations with agency executives I heard several reports of marketers walking through the door insisting they need to become involved in branded entertainment or embedded in American Idol. When asked why, they reply that it is getting harder to connect with consumers.

A strategy, not a cure-all
Yes, it is. But the answer to the attention conundrum is unlikely to lie with pushing an agency to use one specific tactic. Branded entertainment, while an important channel for the future, is not some cure-all. What's needed is a marketing strategy that answers a business problem.

Rarely does a day go by in Mad & Vine land without a eulogy for BMW Films. But the lore rarely notes that Jim McDowell, BMW's marketing VP, did not turn up at Fallon asking the agency to pioneer branded entertainment, or even to use alternative media. He turned up asking a question:

How might he ensure the future of BMW North America? Fallon's answer was to gain credibility among young influencers. BMW Films was just an effective manifestation of that strategy.

Stand for something
When Southwest Airlines Chairman Herb Kelleher first spoke to GSD&M co-founder Roy Spence about his business, he did not ask for a catchy TV tagline. "'People know what we do,'" Spence recalls him asking, "'But do they know what we stand for?'" During the ensuing soul searching the airline and agency identified Southwest's mission as democratization of the skies. "He was in the airline business," says Spence. "We put him in the freedom business." The brilliant "You are free to move about the country" campaigns helped turn the airline from a regional player into the fourth-largest, and most profitable, operator in the business.

Spence had a similar experience with a chap by the name of Sam Walton, who dropped by his shop in 1989 and warned him, "You won't make much on my business, but you'll make a little every day." Walton said he knew how to be the best operating company in the world, but wanted to know how to become the best marketing company in the world. It's a question, as Spence says, that insists on a broad answer. It doesn't just require instant revenue returns, it also requires the cultivation of a business culture and an understanding of what consumers want.

The long-term view
The best questions take the long-term view. Back in 1994, Steve Wilhite, who has since run marketing for Apple and Nissan, was plying his trade at VW, where sales were tanking. But, in his first conversation with Arnold Worldwide, he didn't ask the shop to sell cars. He asked, as Arnold Chief Operating Officer Fran Kelly recalls, "How do we make VW important again?" The answer, of course, was "Drivers wanted."

Want bigger ideas? Ask bigger questions.

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