For the record, responses to my query on Wednesday about which automaker would (have the audacity to) launch an ad campaign promoting manual transmission, by far favored Dodge, which is not that surprising given the brand's rakish advertising. But it's not Dodge. Nor is it the other brands people offered: VW, Audi, Porsche, Nissan, Mazda, two votes for Fiat, a couple of votes for Cadillac, two Chevrolets, one Corvette (which I sort of don't see as Chevrolet), two Chryslers, one vote for Jeep, and one for Saab.
Only one person actually got it right (kudos to Tom Keane at USA Weekend.) Yes, it's Mini. And the BMW unit actually makes perfect sense if one recalls that when the brand (re)launched here in 2002, it offered the Mini Cooper only as a manual-shifter, and most certainly the brand has the highest manual take-rate percentage among any automaker that isn't a pure sports-car brand.
Thomas Salkowsky, manager of Mini brand marketing, says that in spite of an increasingly clutch-free world, about 34% of buyers of the Clubman, the Mini Cooper convertible and the hard top buy the manual version, and that even for the AWD version of the Countryman, Mini's answer for a crossover, the manual take rate is about 30%. In New England, according to Salkowsky, it's a 50/50 split between auto and manual, and even in highway-bound L.A. it's about 15%. That's a huge percentage, given the national average. AOL Auto's editor, Kirk Seaman, wrote last year that back in 1985 22.4% of all vehicles sold in the U.S. came with a manual transmission. By 2007, it was 7.7%. AOL Autos says last year it was about 5.5%.
So the Woodcliff Lake, N.J.-based Mini this week is rolling out a campaign celebrating its "Manualhood," touting the virtues of old-fashioned shifting, and new-fashioned technology that makes it just a bit easier during those terrifying moments starting from zero on hills: the widgetry keeps the brake on for about three seconds so one does not ram the car behind when the light turns green.
The campaign is also for those of us who see a sports car, can't resist taking a peek into the cockpit, and are rewarded for our curiosity with a sinking feeling once we glimpse that cushy sequential shifter and those big "D, D1, R, N, P" toddler-style letters on the center console: the new campaign includes car stickers that tell passers-by that the vehicle has a stick. But the big focus, says Salkowsky, is digital and point-of-purchase.
"We are bringing to Mini's Facebook page, for example, and running creative that communicates 'Manualhood' and exhilaration at Miniusa. com and in online advertising on different auto shopping sites, as well as enthusiast sites like Jalopnik," he says. "We will bring it forward in dealerships."
Retail elements include posters and car toppers, and a "Manualhood" Motoring Manual for dealers to help them communicate the message to shoppers. There is also a phone number, 855-Manual-Up (as in "man up") with a humorous message about what it means to be in the 'hood. Mini dealerships will have a manual-shift car set aside for test drives with "Manual Up" signage. "We will also be encouraging dealers to host events," says Salkowsky.
The company debated whether to do a regionally focused effort favoring markets like New England, which has that 50% affinity for manual shifting, "or in Southern California where it isn't so high," says Salkowsky. Instead, it is making it less about conquesting specific rivals in specific regions than what the manual transmission says about Mini and its owners. It is also communicating the benefits: the base price is over $1,000 lower for the stick, manual gets better mileage, and the above-mentioned hill-start assist technology. "And, really, it's about how it's just a lot more fun driving a manual. Mini is very a sporty car, and many drivers view it as performance car," he says.
Also possible in Mini's future -- driving programs and performance-driving schools for owners. "Because so many owners do this on weekends at autocross events. We are investigating that," says Salkowsky, who adds that Mini sent an email blast this week to all of the people who have configured a Mini online with manual transmission "to encourage them to take action; we are also communicating electronically with owners who bought a manual Mini to let them know about a program we launched this month: an optional credit of $500 when you buy a manual."
The Manualhood effort has nothing specific to do with the forthcoming Mini Coupe launch in the fourth quarter, although one might be forgiven for making that connection. The coupe will be the brand's first bona fide roadster, although Mini also has a performance version of the Cooper, the Cooper S, and the even higher-performance John Cooper Works customized Cooper. "But this is about supporting the entire brand," says Salkowsky. "Manual is the essence of Mini; it's about the fun of motoring. We just think there's something to celebrate because manual drivers love to drive, and we want to rekindle that fun and enthusiasm about driving."