Audi’s Super Bowl ad is a youthful, musical breakthrough into sustainability messaging. But despite the star-studded casting of Maisie Williams, the ad is more than a Big Game commercial: it’s the first test of the brand’s entirely new marketing strategy.
Picture the scene. You’ve just found out you’ve won your first ever automotive client. The brief is exciting: a total global repositioning campaign with a great budget.
The brand loved your ideas and wants to get started straight away. It wants that big, hero film you pitched ready to go live by the last week of January. But it's already November.
"Is there any flex on the launch date?" No. Because the ad’s going to run in a 60-second slot during the Super Bowl.
That’s what happened to 72andSunny Amsterdam, which won the Audi account at the end of last year.
The task at hand was also huge: present Audi as a progressive, design-obsessed, digitally connected, electrifying and sustainable car brand that still prizes the customer experience and engineering. The agency was, at first, overwhelmed with the scope of the challenge and the epic imagery it might require.
“We thought of scripts that had people building rockets and marching against things,” recalls Rey Andrade, executive creative director at 72andSunny. “And we entertained that for a minute because we needed to get it out of our system.
“But then we quickly landed on the idea that we need to have fun. We need to find a way to talk about progress in a way that's modern. People are getting really tired of getting lectured at by brands, so we said, ‘let's be a little bit more populist about this’. Let's make something people can smile at.
“Once we edited the brief in that way, it really started to unlock better ideas.”
The final idea was something rather unexpected from Audi, which has never shied away from the irreverent but has also never quite embraced populist joy.
The spot opens with Maisie Williams climbing into an electric Audi E-tron. She gets stuck in traffic in the middle of a polluted cityscape, and becomes exasperated at the petrol fumes, trash, chaos and warnings of climate change on the radio.
The music then cuts to her singing one of the most recognizable songs of the last decade: Let It Go from the Disney movie Frozen.
“Our initial worry was that this is not an easy song for anybody to sing,” says Andrade. “But [Williams] put in the work and she wasn't shy about it either.
“I think there are other actors we could have put into that role that might have made it feel more self-important than it needed to be. I think her performance and her expressions... help the audience know that we're not taking ourselves too seriously.
"We have a big message and we're serious about what we're doing as a brand. But it's not a lecture.”
As the music builds to its storm-raging, cold-not-bothering crescendo, a cast of characters joins in the song. The landscape around Williams also grows more surreal.
The shoot, Andrade admits, was intense under the time pressure. But it was also “probably the best boot camp for understanding what an automotive production can feel like” – a needed lesson for a shop inexperienced in the legal regulations of advertising cars.
'The first chapter'
The film produced was never meant to be known as ‘the Audi Super Bowl ad'. The client, head of brand Sven Schuwirth, asked for an ad to promote the Audi E-tron Sportback. The timings simply happened to align.
The commercial will be rolled out around the world after Sunday’s (2 February) game. It will be supported by the brand’s “biggest ever” activation across TV, digital and social.
“For us, it's simply the start of the first chapter of our overall new brand campaign,” Schuwirth says. “Our aim is to become the most progressive premium brand.”
Audi plans to do this not with a convoluted brand strategy but with a complete operational overhaul.
It's shifting focus to sustainability, design and digital, while the electrification of its fleet underpins the next generation of ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’; the company aims to introduce around 30 electrified vehicles by 2025 and become carbon-neutral by 2050.
Products as 'ambassadors'
Schuwirth has revamped his marketing strategy to coincide with the revamp of the organization. He’s given his agency three key tasks – regenerate the brand, “emotionalize” the brand and futureproof the brand's perception in terms of sustainability and electrification.
But he’s also bucking traditions with regards to going to market.
“In the past, we always produced dedicated or isolated product launch communication pieces, like every other automotive company,” he explains. “We are going to stop spending on isolated products in the traditional way and try to launch products under the umbrella of the brand a bit more consistently.
“We will simply take all our products or services... and instead [use them] as ambassadors of that brand story.”
With Audi rewriting the rules of automotive branding just as Andrade’s team is learning them, it’s fair to say 72andSunny’s Amsterdam office has had an interesting three months.
But it’s also been blessed with a bit of Super Bowl luck: both Williams and Let It Go featured in the first script, and the creative team managed to land both the in-demand star and the famous song.
“I think it was also kind of fortunate that we were allowed to do the pitch work without [having to think], ‘OK, this is going to run at the Super Bowl’,” says Andrade.
“All of those considerations could have really distracted us from just thinking about the brand itself.”