It's the wheel thing

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Bmw of north america canceled its golf and tennis sponsorships a few years ago to develop its own events and promotions, with spending on such activity now expanding by 20% annually.

The upscale car marketer pours millions of dollars into an expanding mix of events aimed at getting drivers behind the wheel of its latest models, with a growing emphasis on future customers including teen-agers.

Results from test-driving events have been so successful that BMW has upped its investment this year significantly, building a new facility dedicated to honing the driving skills of thousands of adults and teens, including many who have no immediate plans to own a BMW.


"The power of events that put people inside our cars is so much more potent than any other sponsorship or promotion that we decided to put all our efforts into this area, also giving us a chance to own and control every aspect of the events," said Jim McDowell, VP-marketing for BMW of North America.

BMW hasn't lost any sales or significant exposure from jettisoning sports sponsorships, and it's also spending more on its test-driv-ing events than any other carmaker, Mr. McDowell said.

More than 45,000 drivers and 4,886 teen-agers took part in the first yearlong run of the "Ultimate Driving Experience," a mobile marketing effort that ended this summer. Prospective customers spent more than 2 hours behind the wheel of a 3 Series sedan, learning high-performance driving techniques, accident avoidance skills and traction aid tricks, with the help of a professional driver.

Teens got a special 4-hour training session and were allowed to test their skills against their peers. The event, held in 13 major cities across the U.S., also included a gallery of BMW's latest models; a lifestyle shop featuring BMW gift items, apparel and accessories; plus lunch and refreshments served in the M Cafe, where free Internet access was offered to all participants in the event.

Participants were invited through a special database-driven selection process aimed at identifying future customers. In connection with the "Ultimate Driving Experience," BMW raised $1 million for the third consecutive year for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation by donating $1 for every mile consumers test-drove cars through local dealerships.


Next month, BMW begins its second full year of the "Ultimate Driving Experience," this time featuring the new X5 sport-utility vehicle in winter conditions starting in Chicago and continuing to eight other major cities including Minneapolis in January.

"We hope it snows so we can demonstrate the special winter handling capabilities of the car," Mr. McDowell said.

Octagon Marketing, Stamford, Conn., is helping execute the mobile driving effort, with help from a variety of other external and internal resources overseen by BMW.

"This year, we'll sell 150,000 vehicles to 100,000 people who have already been BMW owners at some point; our challenge is to go out and find 50,000 people who have never owned a BMW, and we've discovered hands-on demonstration of the cars, in conjunction with general advertising, is the formula that works," Mr. McDowell said.


The mobile test-driving program has proved so popular with prospects that BMW this fall opened a new promotional center at its Spartanburg, S.C., manufacturing plant where anyone can test-drive 3 Series BMWs on a new high-tech test track.

The BMW Performance Center Driving School opened in September and, with little marketing except for mentions on the carmaker's Web site, has already attracted several hundred people who are expected to pay between $495 to $865 for instruction from professional drivers. Programs include a New Drivers School, Car Controls Skills Clinic, Advanced Car Control Skills Clinic, M School (using BMW's high-performance M3 and M roadsters) and M5 School, offering advanced skills in the high-performance M5 sedan. Among the topics covered are dealing with suddenly occurring obstacles created by BMW's unique "water wall corridor."


Next year, BMW will add an X5 School to hone driving skills on a course involving gravel, rough and flooded roads, narrow bridges, inclines, and obstacles.

This fall, BMW also devised a new option for any BMW purchaser to take delivery on cars made in the U.S. and Europe in Spartanburg, where customers will receive free overnight hotel accommodations, dinner and a complimentary driving class in their new car with a professional driver.

"Our goal is to reinforce the choice people make with BMW and give them a variety of ways to discover the cars' features in ways that are not apparent through mere description or advertising," Mr. McDowell said.

BMW also is beefing up its Web site ( to include opportunities to build and deepen relationships with existing customers. The new "Owners Circle" Internet area allows customers to register at the site and maintain ongoing dialogue with product specialists.


Through such communications, BMW has contacted dozens of customers to participate in special events such as the screening last week of the latest James Bond film, "The World Is Not Enough." The film is the third Bond movie to prominently feature a BMW, as part of the $20 million sponsorship agreement the automaker inked this year with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Also last week, BMW auctioned off the first-ever X5 on eBay for $159,100, with proceeds to benefit the Komen foundation.

"We're pursuing a variety of events that are specifically oriented around BMW and serve our needs," Mr. McDowell said. "We're not likely to return yet to sponsoring sporting events."

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