The idea was that if Hollywood has been able to harness the appeal of comic books to lure moviegoers into theaters, why not use graphic novels to bring buyers into BMW showrooms?
And just as the film series turned to top Hollywood directors such as Tony Scott (Top Gun), John Woo (Mission: Impossible 2) and John Frankenheimer (Ronin), the comic books recruited stars in the comic book world, including Kurt Busiek (Conan), Steven Grant (X-Men, Mage), Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), Mark Waid (Kingdom Come), Karl Kesel (Fantastic Four) and Ariel Olivetti (Avengers). Matt Wagner (Grendel) wrote and drew the first comic, dubbed Scandal, in which the Driver is hired to sneak a rich man’s spoiled daughter out of town.
BMW's ad agency, Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis, one of the key architects of the online films, handled the comic book project as well.
Last year, the automaker signed a deal with Dark Horse Comics to publish six comic books based on the character, played in The Hire shorts by Clive Owen (Closer, The Bourne Identity) as a mysterious driver who is thrown into comedic or dangerous situations thanks to his passengers.
Each installation of the comic book series features a single model vehicle that’s recognizable as a BMW, but purposely futuristic.
The fourth installment of the series, Tycoon, went on sale in mid-March. Its plot revolves around an international entrepreneur who is saved from
enemies by a protagonist, the owner of a futuristic-looking BMW sedan. Award-winning comics writers Mr. Busiek and Mr. Grant penned the latest story, featuring the handiwork of artist Francisco Ruiz Velasco.
Artists were given a few dos and don’ts, such as avoid fiery deaths in cars, especially in a BMW, and not to define the Driver character to much and leave him mysterious.
“This type of comic material is very hot right now,” said Dark Horse President Mike Richardson, whose Milwaukie, Ore., company also publishes Sin City and its best-selling Hellboy line –- both of which have been adapted as movies. Dark Horse’s readership is typically made up of 18- to 25-year-old males -- a demographic of particular interest to BMW.
These readers like “condensed reading,” said Jim McDowell, BMW’s longtime vice president of marketing who moved to run sibling Mini USA April 1.
So far, BMW is pleased with the unusual marketing effort.
“We do a number of really fun, controlled experiments, and this has really met our expectations,” said Mr. McDowell, who was also behind launching BMW’s online film series.
He added that the comic book series hasn’t cost the automaker very much,
if anything. That’s because BMW gets royalties from every issue sold.
Each issue has a publishing run of between 20,000 and 30,000 copies, retailing for $2.99 each. On a retail site owned by Dark Horse's Mr. Richardson, Things From Another World or tfaw.com, buyers can get 10% off the third and fourth issues. The titles are also available at some 3,500 specialty stores across the country.
Dark Horse is the nation’s fourth-largest comic book publisher. BMW let the company decide how many units of the books to publish and how to promote the series. Beyond its own Web site, BMW did not develop other integrated marketing efforts around the comics.
The first issue debuted last August. Dark Horse Comics will offer a bound paperback compilation of all six issues later this year at bookstores. BMW’s short film series, which launched online in 2001, still plays on BMWFilms.com. All eight films are also available on DVD.
The marketer spent $161 million in measured media in 2004, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
Ian Beavis, a veteran auto ad executive who now runs his own marketing consulting firm, called BMW’s comics “cool,” saying they would appeal to a younger crowd. But while comics are currently a hot commodity, he doesn’t believe the automaker’s comic books will generate the same kind of buzz and emotional connection that its online film series did.