On Tuesday, Audi took the Grand Prix at the IPA’s Effectiveness Awards, having established its brand as the 'progressive premium' marque, before a lauded film, Clowns, redefined luxury auto advertising.

In one form or another, technology is everywhere: connectivity can now bolster our fridges, lightbulbs and our cars. So making technology meaningful has become more difficult. For Audi, that job was crucial to its growth, since progress through technology (“Vorsprung durch Technik”) has been the German car marque’s strapline since the 1980s when Sir John Hegarty famously spotted it in an Audi factory.

Last December, BBH London’s Head of Strategy, Will Lion spoke to WARC about its new campaign film, Clowns.

Following the appointment of Marketing Director Benjamin Braun at Audi UK in December 2016, the focus for the brand began to adapt to the artificial intelligence capabilities that were influencing the direction of its new models. Unlike lots of automotive advertising, here was a technology that was impacting the entire fleet, beyond the functional benefits of any one car. The opportunity, then, was to talk about AI in the same breath as the brand.

Artificial intelligence is very difficult to humanise. Those who work on and with it, frequently describe the technology as “f***king cool!” But what does that mean for consumers?

Not only does the technology appear esoteric, it is also typically the same system used by a firm’s competitors. In the automotive space, this is rife, explained Lion. “A lot of them are bought from the same companies and then they’re just made to fit with the firmware and hardware of the cars themselves. So you will find a similar set of capabilities in many new cars.” With the technology widely available, Audi needed to find a fresh angle.

Humanity, comedy and charm

Lion visited Audi’s headquarters at Ingolstadt in Bavaria. He spoke to the engineers and the workers, watched as they guided him through the network of sensors, processors, and radars that breathe intelligence into the cars. He was struck by how, having lived with the tech for a while and become accustomed to it, Audi employees talked about it with “humanity, comedy and charm”.

Beyond functions that appear cool in the abstract, but upon inspection have little bearing on people’s lives, Audi’s application of technology resembled that of a tech company: the systems worked intuitively to augment the user’s life. About one system that measures the sun hitting an individual passenger and regulating the temperature around them to keep them stable, an employee told Lion “I call this one the marriage saver”.

Even new technology suffers from its clichés. “The way brands communicate car tech is generally to show a driver pressing their finger onto a screen, something happening and the camera cutting back to them looking thoroughly delighted with it,” said Lion. “It’s boring.” Instead, the tech felt like magic.

How to make the creative reflect a sense of wonder? Lion briefed his creatives with a nod to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “the idea of Alice falling down the rabbit hole passing all the different Audi tech on the way,” Lion recalled. “So rather than someone smiling at a screen, it was designed to make the work zag a little more, to go somewhere a bit more surreal and magical.” The resulting work was beautiful and elegant, but did it sell any cars?

On Tuesday evening, BBH London’s paper Beauty and Brains: How we supercharged the Audi Premium 2015-2018, won the Grand Prix at the biennial IPA Effectiveness Awards. The paper tells the story of the brand establishing an idea of ‘progressive premium’, and building on that to tell the story of beautiful cars with brains to match.

What’s interesting about the paper is what it illuminates about the brand’s positioning strategy. Audi needed to look to luxury and understand how and what was driving changes in this area, and how those changes would inform Audi’s brand. Luxury was becoming more playful. The result was a distinctive voice – not somebody looking pleased with their car – and clear in its core attribute of progressiveness.

The results are impressive: the campaign demonstrates how it grew the brand three times faster than the total UK car market and 2.5 times faster than Audi globally.