Brand Loyalty Comes Standard With Friends for MINI USA

Patrick McKenna, Head of Brand Communications, MINI USA, with Tanya Gazdik, senior editor, automotive, MediaPost, discussing the brand’s “MINI Takes the States.”

Tanya: I joined up with the tour in Oklahoma City and drove to Dodge City, Kansas, then to Keystone [Colorado]. There was a big party at the end. I couldn’t verbalize what it was like until I experienced it. That level of loyalty is incredible. 

How did MINI Takes the States (MTS) come about and how has event grown and changed over the years?

Patrick: It started in 2006. MINI started in 1959, but wasn’t sold in this country from 1967 to 2002. We really are a 16-year-old brand.

Back in 2006, we had a special high-performance mini that was being launched. Some of my predecessors came up with the idea as a way to indoctrinate new owners into the family -- let’s deliver their new cars to Monterey racetrack and drive across the entire country to Lime Rock racetrack in Connecticut. We’ve done it every other summer since then. 

I joined MINI about six months before the 2012 event. The way people refer to it inside the company is “MINI Takes My Life” because it takes an enormous amount of planning. I had attended an event a few months after I started, and about 10% of audience members at this event were complaining. I started to think about the math. There’s about 4,000 people who come on this. We’re going to have 400 squeaky wheels to take care of. The reality is there’s almost no squeaky wheels. You’re in this realm of suspended reality. Almost Disney-like. 

Once I was at a dealership, fixing a customer’s car. I was explaining to the guy who ran the shop -- we try to make MTS like Disney. If you drop your ice cream at Disney, people come from behind the scenes and give you a new ice cream. And this was my way of explaining to a shop foreman at a dealership what we’re trying to create here. The guy says, “Yeah, I go to Disney every year and a bird flew down, grabbed my ice cream and flew away and someone came out and gave me an ice cream. I totally understand what you’re talking about.” 

We’ve done multiple trips where we’ve gone coast to coast so we go east to west, west to east. This past summer we decided to do an east route and a west route, converging in Colorado --  and the reason for that was it’s typically a 14-day trip to cover the country, and that means pretty long days of driving. We had heard from our customers, give us shorter days and let us hang out in a city for a few extra days.

So that’s where the idea came in for staying, in this case, Keystone, Colorado, for three days. People really appreciated the fact that it was all leading to this one place where they could all hang out.

T: Shorter days were nice because every place we stopped in, people were just amazed. How many times have you gone on MTS?

P: I did ’12, ’14 and ’16, the entire route. That’s important for us as an executive with the company, to be out there for 14 days to see the customers, to hear their feedback, explain why you take the decisions that you do. Before this I was head of product, so I would have people coming up to me saying so you’re the guy who put the window switches on the door, that they don’t like that, direct feedback, focus group on wheels.

When you think of 4,000 people, we’re a niche brand, in broad terms it’s like 10% of your owner group out on the road. Not 60 minutes behind two-way mirror glass talking about your product through a moderator. It’s like people you’re seeing for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the gas station. Some of the things we like to do is, if you’re lucky enough to be filling up at the gas station, I will swipe my credit card and pay for your gas. It’s that kind of atmosphere. It’s really for us to say thank you to customers.

T: Do others in management go as well?

P: Going back in time, the former head of the car company felt very strongly about being out on the road for the duration. He was a brilliant guy. He was also a practical joker, so I would come back to my hotel room and there would be a mannequin in the bed. He spared no expense to be a practical joker. He would have water guns on the road. But he said something really interesting to me once. With companies like Enron, for someone to see the executives that run that company and they’re spraying you with water guns -- there’s something to be said for this, these are the honest, authentic people for the brand. 

For us, the benefit is, it recharges our batteries. It’s not just an appliance. This is a car that people care about. The car has this anthropomorphic face. It is definitely a happy face, a smiling face. Sometimes you go into a small town and they’ve never seen a MINI before. 

It’s a big country -- that’s the other thing you learn. In 2012, I had never gone across the country in a car before. It gives you an amazing appreciation for the country. Driving through cornfields in Iowa for hours and hours and it’s flat and [speaking of outdoor advertising], outdoor advertising is that part of the country, there’s these small, little tiny billboards on the side, basically advertising whose seed was in the ground. That’s mind-blowing for a kid from Queens. 

T: What was your favorite part of meeting owners?

P: It’s what the brand means to them personally. Some of these people have MINI tattooed on their arms. It’s more of a relationship like Harley-Davidson has. H-D was a business case study that got me into business and advertising. One of the first things they did was create a Harley owner group. I think it was to create camaraderie amongst the owners. 

You get to see what it means to them personally, whether they went from not caring about cars to being fanatical. Or whether it was, we have some physically challenged people out there, so they might use hand controls. We’ve had a long-standing policy, if you buy a MINI and you need hand controls, we’ll pay for it. I had that person in tears telling me that car gives her a sense of freedom, a sense of empowerment, and there’s just nothing that you would ever get from a textbook or from data. 

Many of the things we do as a brand are very high tech and targeted but it’s great to be in this road-test kind of environment and just see the brand’s impact on people. What’s interesting is that when the brand set out in 2002, the agency, Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, had laid out this entire culture that the brand would follow.

I’m so thankful that they did that, it was really ambitious. They had this “Book of Motoring” so when you bought the car, it would say that you should wave to other MINIs. I think they created this culture so that by 2006, there was a following. We’re just stewards of the culture.

T: Let’s talk about some of the stats from this year’s event.

P: We covered 2,500 miles from east to west, raised money for 1.1 million meals for Feeding America. We’ve been with Feeding America for past two events. Very gratifying because you’re raising not just the meals but also awareness. In the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, we did some great local content there, covering their food bank. It educated everyone to the fact that when we’re off season, for the Upper Peninsula, hunger is a serious issue. Not only do we raise the meals, we had our customers volunteering their time.

Sometimes we’re lucky and we get on “The Today Show” but it’s amazing to come into a small town and you’re on the 11 o’clock news. Sometimes if the town is really small, you’re the featured story. Somewhere between “aliens have landed” and “MINI has come to town.” 

T: Owners compete with each other to try to raise money. Why is that important to the brand?

P: When we get out and in front of some thing like MTS, a month before the event, people are getting excited. It takes about a year and a half to plan one of these because there are a lot of logistics, working with state and local police. For 500 cars to leave a location in the morning, that wreaks havoc on a town unless they’re prepared for it. The nice things is they close off all the roads so we can get out of town and on the highway. One of the things we do is wave and beep. It’s loads of fun. That creates this great atmosphere. 

T: 18 months planning. Have you started planning the next one?

P: Not officially. When my boss stands up and says, “We’ll be back in 2020,” that puts the flag down. We’re probably in the very early stages. One of the big things is planning the route. It’s extremely challenging to plan because not only do we go coast to coast or, in this case, converging in Colorado, we’re finding the road less travelled.

T: And hotel rooms for all these people and restaurants. All logistics.

P: It’s usually the scenic route. Not the interstate unless we have to. Typically, it’s the winding roads, it’s the roads that are really breathtakingly beautiful. Some are expected and some aren’t. Between Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Buffalo, New York, was a stunning ride. I just wouldn’t expect it. You end up in some places where there’s rural and urban life downtown like Buffalo, where you’re just blown away by what has been done with the old steel mills downtown. That’s kind of like the part of our brand is kind of this urban renewal. Always unexpected things that we find.

T: How does the rally fit into your overall marketing plan and how has the plan evolved?

P: This is a loyalty initiative, saying thank-you to our loyal customers. You would expect this would be the older customers, the first-generation customers, back in 2002, but about 50% are first-timers. We’re bringing in people where it’s word of mouth from others. So they go out and buy a car to be able to go on the trip.

There’s a new class of people -- younger, retired people, very healthy, active -- they love a trip like this. Anecdotal feedback that we get. The amount of money it takes for this event is probably 3% of our overall marketing budget. We don’t use this as a way to conquest, this is purely a loyalty initiative. 

You used a word that is spot on. Do you remember what the word was?

T: Oh, yeah, it’s a little cult like but in a good way. Not in the gotta drink the Kool-Aid way.

P: The word you used before is cultish. But it’s interesting because these are folks that are young, old, from all walks of life but they get along really well. No egos. For some other brands, especially on the premium side, if you have car events, you undoubtedly are going to have ego that comes in. My car’s better than yours. We don’t see even a hint of that. Looking at other people’s cars. No two MINIs look alike. A lot of customization happens in the factory, color schemes. 

T: The Hello Kitty MINI stands out for me. That and the other one I saw was the Beavis and Butthead MINI.

P: It is a bit cultish but they are so welcoming, so happy to be together. We put so much effort into it. It takes a lot of work to keep that Disney-like atmosphere out there. Whether you’re in a media or car company, think about your core audience, think about your audience that is so high on your product that they are you evangelicals. You should definitely foster that community. Take that community, that audience will speak chapter and verse about why your product is amazing. Find them and foster that. That’s where we’re blessed with that. 

Programmatic is fantastic but programmatic will never be standing in front of you kind of choked up. It’s nice to have this human element when you get into this part of experiential marketing.

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