Mini Takes More Than The States

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.

Tags: automotive
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9 comments about "Mini Takes More Than The States".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , August 5, 2014 at 10 a.m.
    They remind me of the VW square backs with the engine in the back.
  2. Michael Strassman from Freelance , August 5, 2014 at 10:01 a.m.
    It's noteworthy and an example of good grass roots marketing, but I would mention the obvious, which is that Mini's entire product line is really just the same car with minor tweaks (doors, 4wd, turbo). It's a little like taking Porsche in the 70s when they really only made one car, the 911 (let's not discuss the ill-fated 914) and calling that a 'line'.
  3. Karl Greenberg from MediaPost , August 5, 2014 at 12:05 p.m.
    Oh, man the 914! I'd actually forgotten all about that. Well I think Mini is constrained for thematic reasons, but I think, within that, they've done a good job of creating some differences.
  4. Catalina Garcia from MINI Owner , August 5, 2014 at 1:12 p.m.
    Mr.Greenberg, great article, but may I suggest a minor edit? MINI: (all caps) the newer models of BMW MINI Coopers which were built starting in 2001. These are what most American's think of as a MINI Cooper. Mini: older models built before 2000.
  5. Scott Lange from Moss Sports | Moss Inc. , August 5, 2014 at 4:27 p.m.
    It's Genius. The ability for this truly experiential marketing, customer engagement and reward/appreciation program to thrive is rare in today's environment of change for change sake. MINI TAKES THE STATES is a keeper and I predict will have a long life.
  6. Karl Greenberg from MediaPost , August 5, 2014 at 10:13 p.m.
    Catalina, I agree, but there are some internal (editorial) issues that always come up with all caps. it's similar actually to adidas, whose trademark is small "a". It has to be caps. But you make a good point. I have to pursue that.
  7. Karl Greenberg from MediaPost , August 5, 2014 at 10:16 p.m.
    Scott, yeah I kind of think it's huge ROI in terms of learnings. I forgot to mention in the column that at each stop there are MINI cabs where attendees can sit in these cars done up as taxi cabs and speak to a Gopro about what issues they have with the products, marketing, tour, whatever. And the fact that the entire marketing staff goes along as well means they get constant feedback. I saw Tom Salkowsky constantly talking to owners. At one point he bought a group of owners lunch, got me to interview them, but also did so himself. I couldn't do that for more than a day before finding a place to hide.
  8. Stephen Block from Amazon Partners , August 6, 2014 at 9:07 a.m.
    Good article, Karl. The MINI folks do an impressive job of building and maintaining the camaraderie of the owners, better, I'd say than practically any other brand. That said, the car goes a long way all by itself! I had a Austin Mini in the '70's and a new BMW MINI for 4 years in the '00's. I always felt I was in another zone from the rest of the auto driving world. The dealer made me feel it, the brand guys helped to express it, and the car was pure joy. No cell phones or Starbuck's in hand whenever I got behind the wheel. Just pedals, stick and wheel. A car / brand for the ages.
  9. Amanda Williams from fTZC , August 13, 2014 at 10:56 p.m.
    You captured the event perfectly! I, too, attended MTTS 2014 Austin to Dallas with my husband, 3 & 7 yr. old. As a marketing professional I was blown away, and a bit envious, of the MINI brand loyalty and power. As a MINI Countryman owner, I no longer dread my commute and instead look forward to jumping in each morning and evening for a 'drive'. My only problem with the MINI is constantly reminding my husband that it's my car when we argue about who's turn it is to drive 'Happy Jack'.