Car Culture: Audi sells innovative image

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

As a consumer you may not realize just how many ways your choice of car is being influenced by an automaker.

Product placement in TV shows and movies, whether blatant or subtle, has long been included in an automaker’s marketing toolbox. But today the methods used to gain consumers’ attention go much further.

This is particularly evident in the premium and luxury car market where image is so important to buyers. Sponsoring big sports events is standard procedure for many brands. But at a different level, automakers are reaching out to consumers through social media channels and more narrowly focused interest groups, such as food enthusiasts.

Of the German high-end brands, arguably one of the most successful in this regard has been Audi. Having previously lagged its primary rivals, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, the last five years have seen Audi stage an impressive climb up the U.S. luxury segment sales charts.

An appealing and fresh product portfolio has been critical to Audi’s recent success, but so has the brand’s careful cultivation of its image as a more progressive alternative to the established players.

This effort is evident too in Audi’s press events, such as the drive program for the S3, a sport variant of the A3, the company’s entry-level sedan. Centered on the Raleigh Durham region in North Carolina, the S3 event leveraged the area’s Nashville-like reputation for cool, innovative small businesses with visits to tiny, farm-to-table restaurants and small-volume, entrepreneurial brands, such as Raleigh Denim jeans and Counter Culture coffee.

Coinciding with the media event, Audi is deploying a small fleet of A4 sedans at a Durham technology company startup center. Called American Underground, the center will have three A4s for program participants to book and drive using the Audi shared fleet app.

The more than 200 companies housed at American Underground, including developers of smartphone apps and other technology entrepreneurs, have raised a combined $29.8 million in startup capital. More than 700 workers use the facility on a daily basis.

Audi plans to use feedback from the users to refine the process in advance of rolling out a national corporate car-sharing service in 2017.

“American Underground is a technology hub occupied with an ideal user group which helps us shape the service and perfect a unique user experience,” said Thiemo Rusch, senior director, vehicle sales and operation, Audi of America. “Piloting the service here gives us the necessary affirmation as we launch this new service nationally next year.”

The Durham experiment is part of a much larger, global effort by Audi to expand on the concept of becoming a mobility provider rather than just a car manufacturer. In concert with programs by its parent, the Volkswagen Group, Audi is pioneering car-sharing and alternative rental-car initiatives. In the U.S. these include Audi on Demand, Audi at home and Silvercar.

The arrival of car-sharing services such as those offered by Audi (and larger players including GM and Ford) is a sign of a new era for automotive consumers.

Creating an aspirational brand for current and future customers through novel and disruptive marketing programs is the name of the game. And for U.S. consumers, the impact will be evident not just in the cars we see driven in movies, but in new and unexpected aspects of our lives.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer.