Generation Y's indifference to traditional forms of marketing and advertising has some big companies and their ad agencies scrambling for creative ways to reach and engage this demographic. "We were born digital," says 23-year-old Josh Spear, a Manhattan-based blogger turned digital marketing savant. "And so we have certain expectations as consumers in the way a brand moves in that space." Spear founded a company called Undercurrent, and big firms pay him handsomely to advise them on how to market to Gen Y. One of his recent projects — the digital marketing element of a BMW "mockumentary" called The Ramp — may have you scratching your head and muttering under your breath, but I think it's a glimpse into the future of Web marketing.
The 35-minute film, which lives only online, chronicles the story of Rampenfest, an event (that never happened) conceived and orchestrated by marketing genius Franz Brendl (not a real guy), who builds a gigantic wooden ramp (digitally concocted) from which to launch the BMW One Series (an actual car!) from the Bavarian town of Oberpfaffelbachen (doesn't exist) to the U.S. It's all a spoof cooked up by Scott Brewer and Ryan Carroll at BMW's ad agency, Austin-based GSD&M, to get the relatively economically-priced One Series on GenY's radar screen. Once the film was in the can, the two realized they need help making it come to life online. Enter Spear and his team at Undercurrent. To build buzz before BMW's March launch, Undercurrent created a blog for The Ramp's "filmmaker", Jeff Schultz, an actor. More teasers followed, including trailers on YouTube and a Rampenfest fan page on Facebook. Closer to the March launch, GSD&M built micro websites for the characters and businesses in the film, including a site for the mythical town of Oberpfaffelbachen, a Facebook page for Franz Brendl, and a store selling Rampenfest souvenirs on Café Press. The result: within the first two weeks of the launch, 1.2 million people had been exposed to some element of the campaign. It's worth noting that BMW isn't even mentioned until six to seven minutes into the film.
It seems to me that the campaign is less about the actual product than it is about delivering a specific message to a target market: we understand what gets your attention, so we're going to plant our brand where you live, give you fun stuff to look at and play around with online, and we're going to facilitate an ongoing conversation that will engage you far longer and more intimately than a 30-second television commercial.
So what do you think about this type of marketing? Will it ultimately sell cars? The jury's still out, of course. But in the meantime, you might want to grab a glass of Liebfraumilch and watch The Ramp.
DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
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