BMW Takes Online Around the Bend

BMW of North America launched the next phase of an aggressive marketing campaign with a 3D game that puts users in the virtual driver’s seat of the BMW X3, a “sport activity” vehicle aimed at the young, affluent and adventurous.

The BMW X3 Adventure game, which went live yesterday on the corporate site, features three different driving experiences combined with mountain biking, snowboarding and kayaking adventures.

The target market for the “sport activity vehicle,” a new category for BMW, is 25- to 35-year singles, couples and couples with their first child, according to Jim McDowell, vice president of marketing, BMW of North America. He said that demographic may not map entirely to those interested in playing the game, but the game will definitely contribute to reaching the target. “We’re always happy, too, if one of our marketing activities skews younger than we intended,” he said. “We believe we’re making an investment in the future of the brand.” With the X3 starting at $30,300, younger game players will need plenty of time to stuff their piggy banks.

A 3D game is rich media, indeed, but hardly BMW’s richest. That honor goes to its digital film series which BMW Films Digital Cinema Series with Microsoft, designed as an opportunity to highlight both BMW’s automobiles and the Microsoft technology used to project the movies.

Now BMW is using another popular entertainment form, and it’s no ordinary game. “It’s as sophisticated as anything we’ve done,” said Garry Kitchen, CEO of Skyworks, the company that created the game. Kitchens said that most online games have a single segment instead of six, while the game uses 3D rendering techniques and physics algorithms borrowed from console games. Skyworks took into account the weight of the X3, the length of its axles and its center of gravity in designing the game, so that users would feel that they were really handling an X3 in an outdoor environment. The game also doubles the standard screen size for online games.

Skyworks collaborated directly with BMW of North America, as it does in 75 percent of its engagements. However, unlike most clients, BMW had a clear idea in mind, Kitchens said, requesting the driving and active sports combo. Kitchens said Skyworks’ engagements may take from two to four months to develop and cost from $20,000 for a one-year license up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. “But even so,” he said, “it costs less than one TV spot, so the value in terms of impressions generated can be significant.”

BMW is heavily hyping the game offline. Before it went live online, BMW set up kiosks loaded with the game in public places such as the Jet Blue terminal at New York’s JFK airport. There, Jet Blue and BMW team members held travelers’ places in line so they could play the game while they waited to check in for their flights.

“It’s smart that they’re out there face to face getting you to try to come to the game,” said Eliot Phillips, a partner and managing director of brand strategy consultancy Lippincott Mercer. He said that a key finding by companies testing “advergames” is that you can’t guarantee what demographic will be attracted, especially since BMW seeks to widen its audience and lure in younger, sportier types. “If I don’t know you’ve put out this game, and your car is not a brand I would typically consider, why would I go to your site.”

But Phillips said that the game’s very allure, combined with a weak registration strategy, could produce an email database that’s full of junk. Site visitors must register with an email address to play the game, but they aren’t asked whether they want more info about the car. “We suspect that because of the buzz that BMW has been trying to build around the game thru non Web channels and events, they will get many users of the game who are there for the curiosity factor, not necessarily because they’re really considering a BMW,” he said. Asking for an e-email address and offering to stay in touch after the game, Phillips said, might have gained BMW a list of people who were actually interested in the car.

McDowell said that awareness of BMW’s new product, rather than actual test drives, were the goal of the game. “We hope the game will be fun, and that people who play it will recommend it to their friends,” he said. “This is a product category where we have not previously competed. A lot of people buy SUVs at approximately our price point but may not think of looking at BMW.”

Look for plenty more rich, rich offerings from the auto maker. McDowell said BMW is still committed to its film series, which is far from played out, with around 85,000 people a day still visiting the site to watch the shorts. “This isn’t our only interest in things you can do with games,” he said. “We see that there could be a variety of directions that BMW could go.”

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