Dear CMO:

Let’s keep pulling on this experience thread. We talked about products with unique experiences that are inherent to their use, from watches to home entertainment, in our last discussion. What about those products that might have subjectively normal to slightly above normal performance characteristics – unless you really know how to use them? This might be the vast, undiscovered opportunity. And the best example I can think of is the car you drive. Or at least the car I drive. Which is an Audi A6 2.7T. And the story that needs telling about the Audi Advanced Handling Course offered by the Panoz Racing School at Texas Motor Speedway.

My beautiful wife Christine gave me the two day course as a birthday present a few years back. I always liked the idea of learning how to really drive my car, as I frequently drive on the notorious Highway 17 between Santa Cruz and San Jose. Highway 17 has the occasional tightly banked turn graded in the wrong direction. This is mostly on the Santa Cruz side driving towards San Jose; I’d venture the guess that the responsible engineers were local Santa Cruzers and that surf conditions were particularly good that summer. My father had a chance to do this with Porsche many years earlier when he and his PR agency brought them to the US. He spoke of flying to Stuttgart and driving, nose to tail with trailing distances measured in handbreadths, at speeds that would get you jailed in America.

The Advanced Handling course began in the classroom with the standard descriptions of how a car interacts with the road under various conditions. I was one of a dozen or so in the course, mostly kids in their early driving years who had wrecked one too many family cars, plus a few guys like me there for something other than remedial reasons. Our first day covered basic handling through the cones, on the skid pad and other basics. It wasn’t until late in the day, with my driving instructor Don beside me, when I began to get the big idea. After getting a fairly middle of the road post mortem on a particular drill, I asked him to show me what I should have done. And he did. You see, Don drove the car very fast. I didn’t know you could really do that. I started to get the point.

You don’t get that feeling ‘till you hear tires squealing.

On day two, I learned that you can take a ninety degree right turn at forty miles an hour without touching your brakes. I learned the Zen of braking (“you put your foot down hard… but there’s another ‘there’ beneath where you put your foot down… deeper down… that’s real braking…”). I learned about going in slow and out fast. I learned that your eyes are looking beyond the next curve while your peripheral vision is keeping you in your lane and off of the car next to you (“… use the force, Luke…”).

I flew home to San Jose, walked up to my Audi, and hugged the hood. “I didn’t know…” I said lamely. It was like discovering your girlfriend was a blackbelt. “You never asked,” it probably whispered somewhere deep in the on-board diagnostics.

* * *
Key Takeaways:

> The Audi Experience is about knowing the outer-most limits of your vehicle. How often are our products capable of much more than the average user knows? Is there a blackbelt – or Superman – hidden under the hood?

> Would the general opinion of the market be different if only they knew?

> If there is, how could we make the Experience as big as the product? Or are we still thinking too small? How do we make the Experience bigger than the product?

> If there is – how do we unleash it? How do we educate consumers before, during and after the purchase decision so that this indoctrination process doesn’t happen by accident?

* * *

Audi is positioned as “producing strong cars,” which is as vivid as it is understated. I’m a big Audi fan, not just because it can do what few cars can do on the road but because it is carefully hidden like a Robert Ludlum hero in a modest exterior. Where BMW is flashy, with too much bling and pomposity, Audi is performance without pretension. I’m biased, of course.

But back to experience. I think Audi should be congratulated for promoting their experience but admonished for not making more of it. You should have to aggressively refuse to participate in the Audi Experience. You should be brainwashed before you leave the showroom and told that without enrolling in “Driving Fast Cars Fast Boot Camp” you’ll leave half your investment in the garage.

This is something that requires an investment in time and effort far beyond a user guide or a quick demo in the store when you buy a product. The manufacturer can’t rely on minimum wage employees to tell their story. And once the consumer walks out of the store or drives off the lot, it’s over.

How can we make this a big deal? How do we make this at least as important as the product itself – or even bigger? How do we make prospective consumers line up and beg to be let in the tent?

Let’s keep pulling on this thread. It’s a good one.


Copyright © 2007 Stephen Denny