Would you consider people who have the same car as you to be part of your extended family? A family you are willing to spend, say, two weeks with? Two weeks driving across the U.S.? BMW’s Mini unit may be the only auto brand that is functionally, constitutionally and existentially (define that as you will) capable of such a thing, and the company has proven it every other year since 2006 with an exercise in madness called “Mini Takes the States” (MTTS).
What started out as a couple of dozen Mini owners driving coast to coast has become hundreds of Minis in a convoy — actually thousands if you include part-way participants. This year's tour visits 15 cities in 13 states over the course of 16 days from July 26 to Aug. 9. Skateboard kingpin and Mini owner Tony Hawk kicked it off, literally, by jumping his board over Mini after Mini as the cars rolled out the start gate in San Francisco.
I joined the rally from Austin to Dallas (sans skateboard), mostly to see what kind of people would do this kind of, to my thinking, exercise in orchestrated masochism. The Mini U.S. executive team, including sales and marketing, are among them, with most bringing their families.
Owners have only to pay $45 to participate, plus gas and lodging along the way. Mini takes care of the rest, including breakfast shindigs; general hangouts; various surprise visits and detours along the route; light meals; parties; performances at each stop; exclusive venue ownership at places like Gilly's Dallas where one can ride the mechanical bronco (guaranteeing an easy out from the rest of the trip); merchandise, maps, and emergency help; and hotel options. And various unforeseen and foreseen logistical nightmares.
It’s probably worth the spend. Participants in Mini's top grass-roots marketing program are definitely advocates and ambassadors for the brand. One guy I spoke to has gotten his entire running club to buy the cars. Many of the “Minions” (or “Miniacs”) are in Mini owner clubs. One group, the Miniskirts, has chapters around the country and world and raises money for various causes. There was one woman who had bought her car about three weeks ago and just decide, more or less on a whim, to do the drive; there's a guy who trades his Mini in for a new one every three months; a woman who lost her husband and was doing the whole thing with her dog; people who had done every trip since the program launched. There are also lots of reporters dropping in and out, including an auto scribe whose blog has a huge following in Korea, from whence he hails. There were the German guys who are driving a Mini around the world (they had gone through Russia, Asia, flown their car overseas and were doing the U.S. leg.) There was one wildly painted Mini with the word "OUT" on the hood. Though the average age looked to be 40's to 60's, there were young and old, white, Asian, Hispanic and African American.
Tom Salkowsky, Mini’s marketing director, rode in my car for my embarrassingly short stint. He said the owner base is a bit too diverse to generalize about. But they are pretty much all into customizing their cars. Salkowsky says this "you-ification" is key to the brand personality. He reminded me that an MIT scientist once did an algorithm to figure out how many factory trims a Mini buyer can choose — not aftermarket, mind you, but straight from the factory — and it came out to something like a billion, "But we stick with 10 million because nobody would believe a billion," he says.
Before we hit the road out of Austin, I strolled past lanes of parked Minis. There were endless combinations of colors, themes, wraps, racks, stickers, tags, license plates, stuffed animals, fake headlight eyelashes, and styrofoam balls, applications with variations of MTTS logos and more. One woman had an electric blue Mini Hardtop with hot pink lightning bolts on the flanks. She was wearing a dress in matching colors and had dyed her hair pink and blue as well.
People in general get sentimental about their cars: Camaro, Mustang, Miata, Beetle and Wrangler have their fanatics, but few brands achieve an emotional connection across the product line. Super premium performance brands and two-wheel brands like Harley and Mini's own two-wheeled sibling, BMW Motorrad, are an exception. Mini benefits because its standout appeal was key back when the brand came back in 2001 under BMW's wing. The other Mini models are extensions that don't lose that essence. When I got home, I told my wife about the experience. She pointed to one that happened to be parked across the street. "I want one like that," she laughed. She might want to get a license first.