How MINI USA Uses Social to Celebrate Its Fans

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Photo: Tony Hawk performing a 540 over the top of the new John Cooper Works Hardtop.

Ever since the first MINI Cooper was built by the British Motor Corporation in 1959 (the auto brand is now owned by BMW), there was something about that little car that immediately captured the imagination of design-savvy ‘60s hipsters, as much as it did with nuts-and-bolts automotive aficionados.

Fast forward to 2015 and it’s hard to drive more than a mile without spotting one of the brand’s distinctive line of cars that range from the original two-door MINI Hardtop (redesigned and tweaked for modern consumers) up through its new, larger Countryman, the even newer 4-Door Hardtop, Paceman, Convertible, Roadster, and the special edition John Cooper model named after the racing legend and namesake of MINI’s original model. Nearly 60 years after they appeared, the MINI is back and seemingly everywhere you look.

This is not the result of some chance occurrence, but a strategy, and a great one at that. MINI owners truly love their cars and act happily as brand ambassadors via social media, while the brand itself encourages real-world interaction via meetups, clubs, and cross-country road trips (captured and documented across platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter). The whole package works so seamlessly, ZEFR recently spoke with MINI USA Marketing Communications Manager Lee Nadler to find out exactly how this design icon of the 1960s is cooler than ever more than a half century after its first model left the lot.

ZEFR Insights: So much of MINI’s social strategy is quite literally social. Whether it’s MINI TAKES THE STATES on YouTube or #SaveTheWave on Instagram, you’re actively engaging your drivers online, but also out in the real world. What’s the philosophy behind this unique social media strategy and have there been measurable results from this approach?

Lee Nadler: MINI is a very social brand, both online and off. We constantly aim to engage our community in fun and unique ways, whether it’s through our social campaigns, strategic partnerships, or group meet-up events. Our community of owners is at the heart of everything we do and is what drives our marketing initiatives.

Last year we pulled off our biggest social activation to date with our Final Test Test Drive competition to support the launch of the new MINI Hardtop. The FTTD program enabled owners to submit ways in which they would “evaluate” the new MINI. We had over 800 submissions (via video, text, pictures, etc.) for how they would test it in a creative way. This campaign was so successful because it blended social content with actual engagement with our owners. It was a great example of a campaign that transcended social channels and allowed us to connect with our community in a way that only MINI can.

Similarly, our most recent initiative, the #SaveTheWave campaign, encourages owners to interact with each other both online and on the road. The MINI community has always been known for its “wave,” but this campaign aims to resurrect it as the official way to greet your fellow Motorer when you see one on the road. Fans are allowed to submit their #SaveTheWave image to @MINIUSA as well as vote for their favorite entry. So far a ton of owners have participated and we’re thrilled with engagement we’ve seen around this campaign.

ZEFR: You’ve mentioned in the past that data is great, but there so much of it, and actual interaction with your drivers/owners can often be more valuable. How does MINI monitor all this data (specifically coming from the social media platforms you use most) and integrate it with this “real world” interaction? How much of an influence does data have over the company’s initiatives, social or otherwise?

LN: We use data and analytics to measure trends and engagement across all of our channels because it keeps us informed as to what works best and what resonates with our owners. We have a number of programs we use to measure this information and that shapes some of our thinking in terms of where we focus our attention, how we want to target our audience, and what we need to consider when building out a strategy. With that said, MINI is all about community and growing relationships with our owners and no amount of data can replace those interactions. Our owners are ambassadors for the brand and we value their opinions just as much as we value the numbers that support a current trend.

“Our owners are ambassadors for the brand and we value their opinions just as much as we value the numbers that support a current trend.”

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ZEFR: In addition to shining a spotlight on MINI owners and fans, you’ve also partnered with influencers such as Tony Hawk. What are some of the unique benefits of having someone like him endorse the MINI rather than a regular owner praising her own car? Can you speak to some of the differences between influencers vs. real car owners?

LN: MINI is very fortunate to be able to work with authentic and unique partners that make the most sense for the brand. Tony Hawk is a great example of a partnership that fits well for both sides; both truly authentic and original brands, trendsetters in our respective spaces, and both dependent on what differentiates us from the rest of the pack. On top of that, Tony owns the MINI Countryman that he now famously jumped to announce the partnership. He ran a social contest to allow his fans to vote on the name of his Countryman, which he ended up naming Maximillion. So again, there’s a sense of “realness” to our partnerships that few other brands can offer. Authenticity is at the core of what we try to do and our partnership with Tony Hawk is a perfect pairing of brands that understand, respect, and value their communities.

“Authenticity is at the core of what we try to do and our partnership with Tony Hawk is a perfect pairing of brands that understand, respect, and value their communities.”

In terms of the benefits to using influencers vs. real owners, we really see the advantages to both. Tony is both an influencer and an owner, and we really don’t tend to partner with influencers unless they truly make sense for the brand. In addition, we really try to let our owners represent the brand as much as possible, and that’s evident in our campaigns like FTTD and our bi-annual cross-country road trip, MINI TAKES THE STATES.

ZEFR: With YouTube, the platform is full of countless automobile reviewers and enthusiasts talking about your brand and your cars without your input. How much do you pay attention to fan (or owner) uploaded content and are you comfortable with the democracy of YouTube, where users can create content that you might never see, let alone control?

LN: We have a very active community both on the road and online in various social platforms, so we don’t mind at all when owners or enthusiasts share content about the brand. Fans have set up unofficial YouTube channels, Facebook accounts, and Twitter profiles, as well as entire blogs devoted to the brand, so we’re more flattered at the outpouring of affection rather than uncomfortable with not being able to always control the message.

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ZEFR: What things have you learned from listening to actual MINI owners that has helped inform your overall strategy when trying to expand that “owner” base and, well, sell more cars?

LN: Owner feedback has always been essential to forming who we are as a brand and developing our strategy. This past summer, every one of our executives made a two-week trek across the country with thousands of our owners on the 2014 MINI TAKES THE STATES ride. We rode from San Francisco to Boston, making 15 stops along the way, and interacting with our owners at every turn. This sort of event is something few brands do and yet we cherish. Our owners impact everything we do and inform every decision we make – either directly or indirectly. To spotlight the cross-country drive, we partnered with Buzzfeed on a video series to capture the energy of MINI TAKES THE STATES. They helped us produce 14 videos from the road, which have amassed more than 4.5 million views in total.

ZEFR: Outside of your role at MINI USA, you are writing a book and maintain the site TheSherpaPath.com How important is it to you on a personal level to use meditation to disconnect from all of this connectivity that is essential to your job? Does your interest in meditation and working on a project such as The Sherpa Path contradict your professional life in good (or bad) ways? How do you integrate these two important aspects of your life in a way that’s helpful to both your job and your well-being?

LN: I consider The Sherpa Path to be an ongoing journey that keeps me balanced in many ways. I don’t think it contradicts my professional life in any way, but rather rounds out my life. I’ve found that a lot of the lessons learned from the Sherpas can be beneficial to facing a variety of difficult challenges, whether it’s on Mount Everest or an issue at work. While both may seem insurmountable at the onset, you can go through a similar process for addressing the situation: creating a plan, determining optimal timing and resources as well as building the right team. Then, as I move through the process, I’m careful to look for signs that may make me rethink the approach or change course entirely if necessary. There are always outside elements that affect a project and you need to be able to recognize these signs, be conscious of how it impacts your work and react to it. At these junctures it’s key to separate ego from reality to determine how to move forward. Easier said than done. It may be a cliché at this point, but I’m a huge advocate for visualizing a goal before moving forward. This is a vital step in business that people often skip, but if you don’t have a clear vision for what success looks like, you won’t have an accurate understanding when you’ve achieved it. In addition to interviewing Sherpas in the Himalayas, I’ve interviewed Western leaders I know whom I think embody a Sherpa characteristic, such as: Danny Meyer, Maxine Clark, Dan Doctoroff and Tony Hawk.*

ZEFR: Without giving any secrets away, what does MINI USA have in store for 2015 in terms of social media? What platforms do you think work best for MINI and how will you be utilizing them in new ways going forward?

LN: This year is going to be both very important and exciting for MINI. Our main focus is continuing to deliver a premium, quality product and brand narrative that is both fun and premium. As always, we’ll aim to attract new customers to but also reintroduce the brand to people who may have lost touch with MINI. A lot of our focus will be on the new MINI Hardtop 4 Door which debuted at the end of 2014. The first half of the year will be all about supporting its retail launch which will include all the traditional channels you’re used to seeing MINI, like digital and social. However, television will have a bigger role in our efforts as try to reach a broader audience and drive interest in the brand. We plan to keep developing interesting and engaging content to share with our fans and owners. We recently shot a stunt using Tony Hawk and professional driver Guerlain Chicherit to highlight the new MINI John Cooper Works model, and shared a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the spot that received a lot of attention online.

We’ve also just kicked off a sponsorship with the English Premier League and have been working with the team at Men in Blazers to create fun content like our MINI Football Football Club. That sponsorship is new in 2015 and we love the way it connects our heritage with who we are as a brand. Again, this is a very authentic connection for both groups and we’re looking forward to the things we’ll be able to do with a partner as spot-on as the English Premier League. *Nadler’s Sherpa Path inteviews can be found here and here.

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