Six months into Dieselgate, the Audi brand in the US hasn’t been touched by the emissions issue occupying its corporate parents at Volkswagen AG or its siblings at VW. Only a relative handful of Audi vehicles were implicated in the matter, which helps, while Audi has kept its own momentum going in the US with key new products, major branding initiatives—and, most recently, significant third-party endorsements.
This week the esteemed automotive critics at Consumer Reports declared Audi the #1 brand for luxury car-buyers in the US (Subaru was named the best mainstream brand). Fully 100 percent of Audi models tested by the magazine are recommended by it, which is particularly high praise as a distinction that none of its premium market rivals enjoy.
As Automotive News noted on the CR crown: “Audi, which finished with a score of 80, overtook Lexus, which dropped to third place after finishing first the previous three years. Subaru finished second with 78 points and supplanted Mazda as the highest-ranked non-luxury brand. The influential magazine, which has compiled its brand report card for nine consecutive years, said Audi and VW vehicles that have been pulled from dealerships due to diesel emissions violations are not included in scoring. The VW brand finished 15th for the second straight year with 67 points, up from 60 points in 2015.”
And in the latest, equally influential J.D. Power annual study of vehicle quality and reliability, Audi did trail Lexus, its sibling Porsche brand, and even Lincoln among luxury marques, although it did beat fierce rivals Mercedes-Benz and BMW. And the German automaker’s A4 sedan was among the highest-ranked in its category.
Audi also has begun volume sales of its substantially overhauled Q7 SUV in a segment that is among the industry’s hottest these days. The brand is looking forward to the launch of a new version of A4, its bread-and-butter sedan. And it won acclaim for its David Bowie-esque Super Bowl ad, “Commander.”
Loren Angelo, director of marketing for Audi of America, has said that “As a challenger brand, you have to look at your category, your situation… and attack it head-on.” We chatted more about how to keep the momentum and growth going—and how long Audi can continue to keep calling itself a challenger brand.
brandchannel: The Audi brand rose like a rocket over the last seven years. Now, given how Audi’s sales have continued to surge lately and have moved you closer to the US luxury-market leaders, how do you direct the brand?
Loren Angelo (right): We need to continue to challenge. That’s what allowed us to drive our position and to turn the brand around beginning in 2008. A challenger brand doesn’t mean we only challenge the competition, but we communicate how we challenge the status quo and challenge complacency in our industry and in culture.
That type of approach keeps us nimble and allows us to continue to convey that Audi is a brand that pushes the edge. We see that in our motorsports program, in our leadership in piloted driving technology and in new products that come to market with leading edge technologies such as the virtual cockpit. Those are all things that we celebrate in our advertising and marketing.
bc: What has the A3 Sedan, introduced last year, done for the Audi brand—and vice versa?
Angelo: A3 has given us an incredible opportunity to speak to a new audience of first-time luxury buyers, bringing in almost 70 percent new consumers who have come from the mass market. It allows us to give those buyers a chance to experience the new Audi with leading design, technologies and our sophisticated new environments with our premium dealership network. We get to expose millennials to a brand they’ve been aspiring to for years.
Angelo: It has allowed us to draw a line in the sand and make it very clear that there was a new luxury player in the game—having a supercar with that stopping power in our portfolio made a powerful brand statement.
We started advertising it in the Super Bowl, and it has continued to be a halo for the brand, allowing us also to talk about our pioneering aluminum space frame, our leadership in motorsports and that this car shares more than 50 percent of its parts with the R8 LMS racer, so our consumers are really driving a race car every day when they get behind the wheel of the R8. And clearly, from a design standpoint, R8 sets an emotional tone for the brand that conveys the excitement and enthusiasm that inspires every Audi on the road.
bc: Brand marketers are divided about the value of advertising with tentpole events such as the Super Bowl, or of taking an always-on approach that surrounds the consumer with frequent, smaller efforts via digital and social media. What’s your philosophy?
Angelo: Every brand has to evaluate their own priorities. For Audi we still have a hill to climb in making consumers aware of our brand and getting them to consider Audi (or better said, put us on their shopping list). I believe a combination of high-profile programs combined with targeted continuity elements is a strategy that works for our brand.
We just finished the Super Bowl, we’ve got another Marvel film coming up [Captain America: Civil War, due out May 6, features Audi models including S8 and Q7] and the Emmy Awards again as the official automotive sponsor. All are parts of our plan to keep Audi in the conversation.
We are also focused on the frequency of our messaging. We are still outspent three-to-one on marketing by Mercedes-Benz and Lexus, so it’s important for us to identify those always-on platforms that luxury intenders are utilizing, and to have the data to help us identify those core properties to build a more consistent presence. We also are working more closely with dealer advertising around the country to make sure our media platforms are aligned for greater effectiveness.
bc: How do you continue to position Audi as a challenger brand as you grow market share and leadership in US luxury sales volume?
Angelo: Connecting culturally and keeping Audi in the American conversation will help drive us toward success. One of the key focuses of our future strategy is built around the growing product portfolio for Audi that we have coming, and leveraging that through marketing all the innovations that are coming in these products, such as the Q7 or, in a few months, the new A4—or the new R8.
Those include virtual cockpit, traffic jam assist, and other innovations that set Audi apart as the progressive luxury choice. Associating those leading-edge products and top technologies with our progressive brand position will draw new, engaged consumers to our brand. By telling those stories on big media platforms, we highlight that Audi is the brand that is making investments and pushing ahead—staying true to what has made us successful thus far and not accepting the status quo.