Volkswagen Launches 2010 GTI Using Only an iPhone Game
By Chris Haak
In what is likely a first for an auto manufacturer, Volkswagen has decided to to eschew the traditional print/online/broadcast advertising campaign to launch its new 2010 GTI. Instead, the company licensed an existing racing game for the iPhone, stripped out all of the other cars, added some slick social-media features and marketing materials for the 2010 GTI, and put it on Apple’s App Store for free. The game is called Real Racing GTI.
iPhone apps as a promotional tool aren’t anything new; as I occasionally peruse the App Store, I’ll notice “featured” apps intended to promote movies or TV shows that are rated 2/5 or 3/5 stars. Audi has sent several rounds of press releases over the past year about apps that it has offered for free to promote its products. Being a car guy, of course I had to download those, and after trying Audi’s first effort for a few minutes, I got rid of it. Let’s just say it was easy to see why it was getting only two or three stars.
What’s different about the Audi situation versus the GTI’s is that Audi only used the iPhone app as a supplement to a traditional media campaign. There were still online and TV ads. With the GTI’s launch, Volkswagen may have spent as little as $500,000 on mobile services like the game and other initiatives like a mobile device-friendly alternate website. Volkswagen spent about $60 million, or 120 times more, on the 2006 GTI’s more conventional launch.
In spite of my personal history of generally being disappointed by freebie games that are intended to promote something, I decided to give this game a try. The four-star rating certainly helped seal the deal for me, as did comments like, “great graphics,” “great gameplay,” and “best racing game on the iPod.” I also managed to pretty easily filter out comments like, “should have more cars,” considering it’s a free game. Was the person who wrote that comment expecting VW to let people drive a MazdaSpeed3 in their app, or were they expecting more VW vehicles in a game with “GTI” in its title?
Real Racing GTI is based on Real Racing, a $6.99 iPhone game sold by Firemint. The full Real Racing game has 48 cars and 12 tracks; the GTI-only version has just a two-door or four-door GTI and a single track. Otherwise, I believe that Real Racing GTI has the full gaming functionality of the non-free version.
What makes the Real Racing GTI more appealing than most lame attempts that marketers try to get folks to download a game or application is that it has excellent gameplay. The aforementioned Audi app that I tried last year was two-dimensional and difficult to control. This one – while obviously VW- and GTI-centric – is actually fun to play. Graphics are rich (considering the small size of the iPhone’s screen) and flow smoothly. The car is easy to control, with not only an automatic transmission (presumably a DSG, since it’s a GTI), but also a user-configurable automatic throttle and brake. You can drive the car by pressing on the accelerator and hitting a brake pedal, but the standard setting is to let the computer accelerate constantly, then brake as needed when approaching a curve.
The [virtual] car accelerates rapidly compared to the other GTIs that you’re racing against, and even with several mistakes, it’s easy to catch up to the competition. I didn’t spend a lot of time playing the game, but I had a few more mistakes than could be called “a few” and just beat last place by a tick. Steering using the iPhone’s accelerometer makes precision a somewhat impossible proposition – at least to my unpracticed hands. I found myself always over-steering as I exited turns, then having trouble correcting the car’s direction and ending up in the grass. I’m sure that with more practice, I’ll get better.
The free game portion was fun, if not terribly difficult, and did serve to interest me in the full version with the almost-50 other cars. In the whole scheme of things, a $6.99 video game is really inexpensive. I also really do like racing simulation games – I once bought a Sony PS2 just to be able to play Gran Turismo. Yet I haven’t taken the time to investigate other possible iPhone-compatible alternatives to Real Racing.
The game’s showroom feature opens with a brief video featuring – of course – the 2010 GTI racing on virtual roads into an iPhone. Within the showroom, there is a button to get high-level information on the 2010 GTI and a GPS-enabled dealer locator. As mentioned earlier, the app has social-media features that allow users to upload videos to YouTube and send messages via Twitter. These features did not seem to work properly when I clicked on the “Winner’s Circle” link within the app, which took me to a web page for Cloudcell that apologized that it was down for maintenance.
Not only is this tactic seemily a smart move based on the incredible cost savings that VW will see from this strategy versus a traditional launch, but it’s also a great demographic match for VW. The company gets the buzz from sites like this one about an innovative (and bold) strategy of reaching out onlyto mobile device users – and to only users of one specific mobile device. However, under the surface, the strategy may not be as risky as it seems to be. There are 50 million iPod Touch and iPhone users worldwide; if VW can get 1/10th of 1% of them to download the app, that’s 50,000 people who are 1) interested in the GTI, 2) tech-savvy and probably in the GTI’s target buyer demographic, and 3) likely to spend far more time in front of the app than they are in front of a $130,000 30-second commercial on NCIS in front of 21 million viewers. To spice things up, VW is giving away several special-edition 2010 GTIs to game players.
Ninety percent of my non-sports TV viewing is not live, but on my DVR, and it’s rare that my wife or I will sit through a string of commercials without fast forwarding. While I may be missing out on conversations around the water cooler about a commercial for a particular product, I’ve certainly given VW more than my share of attention thanks to this app. I’m not just saying that because I decided to write about it, either.
Sometimes unconventional marketing campaigns work and sometimes they don’t. (Just ask Nissan about the launch of the Infiniti brand in the US.) The nice thing about a low-cost unconventional campaign is that if it bombs, they can always go back to the drawing board with something more traditional. If that happened, nothing else would be lost aside from momentum in the market.
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