BMW Mini's head of US marketing on Olympics glory, election year advertising and trusting your agency

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"One thing agencies don't understand are the pressures that the clients actually have," says Tom Noble

Most agency and clients say that the most important thing in the working relationship is trust. Tom Noble, head of Mini marketing in the U.S., was so confident that the brand’s agency, Butler Shine Stern & Partners, would deliver, he convinced his bosses in Munich that they should invest in a Super Bowl spot before he even had a concept. "If you didn’t trust your agency to deliver on a great idea in the Super Bowl, you’ll be in big trouble," says Noble. "It’s the biggest advertising showdown in the year."

It marked the brand’s first Super Bowl appearance since 2011, and the debut of Mini’s new brand campaign "Defy Labels." In candid interviews shot in black and white, stars from sports and entertainment, including Serena Williams, Abby Wambach and Harvey Keitel, discussed how they challenged and overcame labels throughout their lives. This month, Mini turned up the color and the stars and stripes to take the campaign to the Rio Olympics.

A 30-second spot has athlete after athlete sharing the labels they’ve had to challenge to get to the games, from "Poor" and "Cancer Patient" to "Immigrant" and "Muslim." The TV commercial sums up the athletes’ personal stories told in longer unscripted films online. Tennis star Serena Williams discusses growing up in Compton, for example, and fencer IIbtihaj Muhammad talks about being the first Muslim woman to compete in a hijab. The message: "The only label that matters is Olympian."

In an interview with Campaign U.S., Noble—whose 25-plus-year career includes working as an account director on Nike at Wieden + Kennedy in the early 90s and leading marketing for Adidas and the Australian Football League—discusses the evolution of Mini’s advertising, the ingredients to successful agency-client relationships and the value of advertising on the Olympics.

This year marked the first time since 2011 that BMW Mini advertised on the Super Bowl, with its "Defy Labels" spot. Did your experience there inform the decision to advertise on the Olympics?
BMW Group is a sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Coming out of the Super Bowl, which was very successful for us—we had had over 40 million views online, and saw brand consideration increase quite healthily—we thought there was an opportunity with the athletes to tell the "Defy Labels" story in the Olympic environment. So it made sense to do "Defy Labels" 2.0.

How are you leveraging the Olympic sponsorship beyond broadcast?
All the long-form interviews are online, there is a lot of paid social, and social with the athletes. For every test drive customers take [in August,] a donation is given to the U.S. Olympic committee. We also had selfie posts with a board that says, "My test drive just helped the US Olympic Committee." So we’re able to engage people down at the dealership level as well.

What were the creative considerations for "Defy Labels" 2.0?
How do we make that a bit better, and a bit more emotional than where we were? Really, it came down to let’s find the stories to tell about the athletes, and let’s make sure those stories are topics relevant in today’s environment. The election period is very interesting environment to advertise in. What stories would resonate, and then what athletes can tell those stories? We were looking for people that had labels that they would have to overcome to become an Olympian. There are so many great human stories. We didn’t have to scratch very hard to find labels that were being defied, or people overcoming prejudices, or perceptions that were maybe not valid.

Were you concerned that in this political climate the work might alienate some consumers?
"Defy Labels" is a universal idea, whether you’re a red state person or a blue state person. It didn’t necessarily become a political ad by any stretch of the imagination. It was more of the human ad, and the people who are representing us in the Olympics all have stories regardless of whether it was an election year or not.

As a brand, what are the labels that Mini is trying to defy?
It’s too small. It’s underpowered. It’s a girl’s car. It’s too cute. Once you drive the Mini, you realize those labels don’t really matter; that link between the labels we’ve had as a brand, that we shatter every day when people drive our car, was a nice thing to link to a universal human truth. Everybody has some label that they’ve been hooked with at some point.

What was the original brief to the agency?
When the brand first launched in the U.S., it had some purpose. We then drifted a bit in the mid-2000s, and the last couple of years, to a campaign called "Not Normal." We tried to be different for different’s sake. When it was originally launched, we were different, from the fact that you could individualize a car; that it was small; that it was a fun car to drive; that it had a distinct personality. And we lost that purpose. We wanted to address that loss of purpose, and the notion that the brand might have been a bit frivolous—a frivolous small car—head on.

We just said let’s just get people to talk about Mini again around things that matter to us. For a car brand that has .5% market share, the Super Bowl is a big platform to do that. If we wanted to change the perception in a hurry it seemed like a good place to do it, even though we knew that out of 111 million people there would be some folks that probably wouldn’t be interested in Mini.

What were the results from the Super Bowl investment?
We saw an increase in consideration. We benchmarked versus our competitive set. We increased five points on that versus competitive set, which was pretty much flat. The perception of the value of the car has increased, the quality of the interior has increased dramatically, so people are starting to feel that these cars are a bit more premium, and overall ad awareness has increased a lot for us. We look at traffic to our website, which increased about 25% versus last year, and we are getting new people to look at Mini.

Historically, Mini has relied on a lot of print and outdoor advertising. What made you shift to such a big broadcast push? What is your media strategy?
We are very much a coastal brand. We have lots of sales in Northern California, Southern California, South Florida, New York, Boston, Seattle and Portland. Overall, we still have an awareness issue, and TV is a really good way for us to address that in a hurry. That combined with digital would allow me to do the tier two and the tier three sales jobs that I need to do. It was the best balance between the two media vehicles to deliver an inspirational or emotional message around being different and overcoming labels, and then harvest that interest digitally to generate leads.

Mini has worked with Butler Shine Stern & Partners since 2005. How do you define a good agency-client relationship?
I’ve always found that working with an agency is a give and take. You’re not always right, and they’re not always right. You can hash ideas around, and ultimately if you have very talented people in the room you can get great stuff because there’s an environment or culture set up to do that. I think there’s a big value in knowing each other, longevity and relationships.

Do you think your agency background makes you a better client?
It would make me a better account person if I went back to the agency world. One thing agencies don’t understand are the pressures that the clients actually have. Once you get to the marketing person there’s a whole other level of places you have to go, right? A lot of agencies don’t understand that. But I think it’s made me a better client also, understanding how agencies work, or in some cases don’t work.

What do you think most often gets in the way?
Clients get the work they deserve. If you are clear on where you want things to go, and you can provide clear feedback, nine times out of ten you’ll get something that works. If you’re not, it’s easy to have a breakdown in the relationship. You need to have talented people who understand how the process works. It isn’t a sausage factory. You can’t just put something in in one end, and get it out the other end. You actually need to work on it, and you need to work on building that environment of trust.

What’s the next chapter of the Mini story? Will there be a "Defy Labels" 3.0?
We’re still debating that. "Defy Labels" is a good way for people to wake up about Mini, to say, remember us and rethink Mini. The brand needs to be a bit more mature and sophisticated, and I think this would help us get to that point. We’re debating whether that needs to continue on next year. We also have new product coming out next year. So we’re working through that, but that concept about being an individual, and doing what you think is right in the face of a lot of people, or situations, which may be stacked against you—it’s certainly a value that Mini has, and will continue to have whether it’s presented as "Defy Labels" or something else. It’ll always be a part of what we are as a brand.



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