Audi's Blueprint Behind the Launch of the A3 Compact

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The deal: Audi employs a cast of fictional characters to steal and retrieve its new A3 in "The Art of the Heist" campaign.

The result: The effort hasn’t just piqued interest in the A3, it has also boosted sales for all of Audi’s models.

Most car companies try to avoid any bad news when rolling out a new vehicle. Not Audi.
Audi's agency McKinney & Silver chased the savvy buyer who's engaged with all media, so the shop mixed the Web effort with nontraditional advertising.

In April, the automaker unveiled "The Art of the Heist," a campaign that began with the mysterious theft of its new A3 compact car from a dealership on Park Avenue in New York.

Played out over 90 days

The thriller, which revolves around fictional characters trying to track down six stolen A3s containing coded plans for the largest art heist in history and the villains behind the effort, played out over 90 days across multiple Web sites, and included media like TV ads, online banners, billboards, radio, wild postings, classifieds and live events and appearances.

Visitors to microsite and dot-coms like or could follow the characters and developments of the intricate plot through e-mails, text messages, documents and video footage, for example. Sites for the plot's fictitious characters, such as video-game pioneer Virgil Tatum at and Nisha Roberts of, who recovers stolen art, were also created, and the characters even showed up at events like May’s E3 video-game convention in Los Angeles and the Coachella Music Festival.

The culprit, a video-game designer who plays a minor role in the campaign's storyline, was revealed at an event at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., last month.

The idea was hatched by creatives at Havas’ McKinney & Silver, Durham, N.C., and Chelsea Pictures (The Blair Witch Project) in February.

Creating a living storyline

“We asked ourselves, ‘How can we create a living movie or storyline around this car?’ That’s really where this started,” said David Baldwin, McKinney & Silver’s executive creative director. “But it became much, much bigger than that.”

The stolen car has led to a boost in sales for Audi.

The campaign has helped Audi generate over 10,000 leads to date, and 3,827 test drives. Of the leads it received in April, 10% of those translated into sales of Audi vehicles, said Stephen Berkov, director of marketing for Audi of America. That's compared with 4% in April 2004. Audi hopes to sell 10,000 A3 cars annually.

Audi is still tracking awareness the campaign may have built for the Audi brand and the new A3. But the company estimates that 500,000 people followed the story throughout the campaign, according to usage of its Web sites.

The company found that after a person clicked on an online advertisement to check out the program, 34% of user page views were to A3 buying indicator pages on the Audi brand site, where they looked up dealers, requested quotes or configured their own car. That’s a 79% increase over previous launch efforts.

In May, traffic to Audi's Web sites surged 40% to 1.2 million unique visitors compared with a year ago. People spent on average nearly 10 minutes on and nearly 5 minutes on

Increased online ad spending 350%

That’s significant news for a company that upped its online ad spending between 2003 and 2004 by 350%, to $5.7 million last year, when the marketer spent a total of $78.5 million in measured media, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Audi's target customers spend roughly six hours visiting six or seven Web sites in their car-shopping process, said Jim Taubitz, online marketing manager at the automaker, noting that 85% of Audi customers use the Internet for vehicle shopping.
Audi's agency McKinney & Silver chased the savvy buyer who's engaged with all media, so the shop mixed the Web effort with nontraditional advertising.

However, the marketers are quick to say that it wasn’t just the Internet component that made "The Art of the Heist" successful. They point to other elements like TV and print that sent visitors to the Web.

“It was most effective when everything was working together,” said Lee Newman, senior vice president and group account director at McKinney & Silver.

“It’s a great example of a marketing campaign that didn’t try to disguise itself as anything but,” Mr. Baldwin said. “At the center of the whole campaign is the product. It’s very true today that people aren’t looking for advertising, but they’re looking to be engaged in things. They’re looking to be respected and play a part in things. People get to be as involved as they want. You can go as deep into this thing as you want.”

'Type I' consumer

Audi intended for "The Art of the Heist" to target males aged 25 to 34. Audi calls this group “Type I,” a group of people that are innovative, intelligent, plugged in and passionate about cars.

“This is a very savvy young buyer,” Mr. Baldwin said. “They’re people who are engaged in all media. They’re smart, savvy and discriminating. Cool kids. They’re looking to be involved in things that have a lean-forward mentality. They have high-income first jobs to second jobs. College graduates. They’re not your typical luxury buyers. They’re high-tech and online. They watch TV, but it’s not their main source of entertainment. When you have a car like the A3, we felt like we needed something as innovative as the car to talk to these people.”

While Audi hoped early adopters would generate buzz and word of mouth for broader audiences -- the automaker tracked blogs and other Web sites to see what was being said about the campaign -- Audi didn’t expect seven followers of the campaign to create their own fansites devoted to the mystery within days of the launch.

Because the campaign played out primarily online, "The Art of the Heist" will likely continue to drum up even more interest for the A3 and Audi’s vehicles.

“It will live on,” Mr. Baldwin said. “It’s a great example of how advertising isn’t dying. It’s exploding and being reborn.”
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