For years, BMW has run a side business in teaching people to drive like Clive Owen in those BMW films from 2001, one of the early experiments in branded, online rich-media content. BMW’s Performance Driving School in Greenville, S.C., where the company has a manufacturing facility, actually gets a lot of business -- and not just from people who just bought a BMW and want to learn big skills. There are also corporate groups looking for bonding experiences, and serious drivers looking to hone their racing and stunt-driving skills.
Ironically, however, given BMW's first-mover position in online video, the performance school's consumer Web site had, until last week, been very old school: no motion, and lots of still shots. That changed on Thursday when the company launched a new site that brings the experience of taking a "hot lap" to life, via video, embedded interactive content, huge audio, and other rich media elements. The redesign, by ad agency partner Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners (kbs+), showcases the new BMW M5 as it careens wildly around the school's test track, seeming to barely make it around corners, while skimming over sheets of water, and through its own tire smoke. The camera seems to careen along with the car.
Marc Hartzman, creative director at kbs+, says the company wanted the new site "to show off how exciting and exhilarating the driving school really is." He says the site is both for current owners, people who just bought a BMW and want to do the vehicle delivery program (where new buyers travel to Greenville to take delivery of their vehicle at the factory and get an immersion experience with the car), and groups who want to do the driving school.
"After every class, students do hot laps with professional drivers, a 'ride of your life' experience. We wanted to capture that." The interactive "hot lap" drive has an interactive component, where users can follow the car around the track from different perspectives, with real audio of the car (headphones are suggested). "There are pretty intense sounds, and the idea is when you hear them it should get your blood rushing."
The interactive element enables users to get into the technique the driver uses to handle the track at high speed, via an embedded, live track map that shows where the car is at any given moment, with hot links at various points that launch video mini-lessons. The lessons feature professional drivers at the school explaining how to handle that particular region of he track. The site also allows users to explore other programs, book a class, and get info about such things as what to do in the surrounding Greenville area while visiting. "It's a nice innovative approach, and we will be using it in social media, too," says Hartzman, adding that there will be an email campaign to owners, and that it will be promoted on the front page of BMWUSA.com.
Daniel Gubitosa, manager at the BMW Performance Center, says the school -- which has been around for 13 years and gets some 14,000 visitors per year -- is probably more of a marketing tool by accident than design. "We see lots of corporate groups who come in, clients who come in for team building. Really, it was designed to be a school on its own, to generate revenue, that was the business model; yes, the ultimate goal is to sell more cars, but it's also very well- respected school in its own right."
The competition? The Skip Barbers of the world, not to mention similar programs offered by Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and others in the same competitive group. As for things to do around Greenville, the town has seen something of a second boom after the decline of the textile business there, thanks largely to Bimmer's production footprint, which has brought in suppliers, tire companies and the like.