hen Volkswagen of America Inc. (VW) released the fifth-generation Golf GTI at North American dealerships in February 2006, the message was clear: GTI is back. Since its 1983 U.S. debut, when the “hot hatch” was heralded as the first affordable “pocket rocket,” the sporty hatchback evolved into a hefty, more luxurious and, frankly, less fun-to-drive car. Market share eroded in the face of mounting competition. With the all-new GTI, VW intended to recapture the hot-hatch market.

The first step toward winning over car buyers is courting the automotive press. Some skeptics suggest automakers can wine and dine journalists to coax out glowing reports on just about any new model. But among reputable magazines read by auto enthusiasts, that’s not necessarily the case. Readers trust the reviewers and expect cars to earn their accolades. It’s up to manufacturers to prove that their vehicles can meet the high expectations of these journalists, who, after years of test-driving new models, can quickly spot a true gem.

The European version of the GTI had already earned rave reviews when writers test drove the vehicles from Wolfsburg, Germany, to the Paris Auto Show in November 2004. To introduce the North American model, VW and its event partner, Berlin-based BTM, had to convince some of the same members of the “long-lead” press — print magazines with a several-week lag between news gathering and publication — that the car merited another “first drive,” an important feat, noted the judges. That meant giving them a sneak preview of the U.S.- spec GTI in November 2005.

The European-spec GTIs that press drove on the mostly straight highways to Paris had five-speed manual transmissions. The U.S.-spec GTI sported a new, optional, six-speed direct-shift gearbox, an electronically controlled manual transmission with a double clutch. The race-car inspired paddle shifts would deliver “super smooth” gear changes for enhanced performance. In short, a fun, fast ride. To prove that the car matched its German counterpart’s zip and handling, VW needed a worthy drive route. The assembly-plant production schedule dictated the number of U.S.-spec GTIs that would be available to test drive, and the number of cars available dictated how many journalists VW could invite. Just 12 vehicles would be hot off the assembly line in time for the long-lead press event. VW had 12 cars, 12 magazine journalists, and 12 chances to impress.

“We identified journalists who like a car that is quick and fast, and enjoy driving a hip, cool car,” says Bobbi Czarnik, VW public relations launch and event manager. “We needed to give them seat time — the opportunity to drive the car for at least five hours.”

These journalists typically get invited to dozens of press events each year. In the United States alone, more than 300 car models generate nearly nonstop briefings during auto-show season. The North American GTI long-lead press briefing had to be appealing enough to get writers and editors out of the office for a second look at a car some expected to be a shadow of its German self. (U.S. safety regulations dictated a slightly higher ride height, which meant a softer suspension and, presumably, less responsive handling.)

To get their attention, Czarnik’s team hooked its targeted journalists with a three-barbed lure: the chance to road test the U.S.-spec car, interview VW of America’s new leader, Adrian Hallmark, and experience the French Riviera.

Client:Volkswagen of America Inc.

Event: The All-New Volkswagen GTI — Long-Lead Press Event

Corporate Objective: Regain the Golf GTI’s reputation in the now-declining U.S. market for hatchbacks.

Strategy: Invite 12 U.S. journalists to test drive the North American edition Golf GTI.

Results: Positive reviews in all 12 automotive magazines; 1,303 GTIs sold in February 2006, five times the volume of prior-model sales the previous year

Creative/Production Agency:BTM, Potsdam, Germany, 49-331-58186-0,

Budget: $183,200
One-upping traditional limo transfers, VW of America Inc. moved its attendees in VIP style in chartered helicopters from the airport in Nice to the hotel base in Vence, France. A break at Monte Carlo’s famed Casino marked the midway point on the journalists’ 250-mile driving route. Attendees passed an evening playing boule with locals in Vence’s historic Boule Square. All 12 of VW’s targeted journalists published rave reviews of the new GTI following the press event.   Sampling the region’s premiere food and wine cemented the event’s high-end flair.
Scenery, luxury and a hot car ensured a memorable event for the hand-picked media attendees.

Shifting Gears
Winding roads in a picturesque alpine setting would showcase the German engineering and reinforce the GTI’s origin as a European sports car. Working with a $200,000 budget, the event team chose the French Riviera as the destination. To select venues and plan the drive route, the company turned to BTM, with which VW had partnered for six years to plan press briefings, and test drives, and to strategize other new-model-launch events.

“We told them: Here’s how the car is positioned, this is the driving experience we’d like them to have, and these are the scenic points we’d like them to see on the road,” says Steven Keyes, VW public relations general manager.

BTM managing partner Sascha von Gustedt says it was the perfect setup. He knew of a handful of boutique hotels on the scenic Côte d’Azur that would accommodate the group of 25, including guests and support staff. After a two-day site inspection in Monaco and Nice, France, he booked Nov. 8–11, 2005, at the five-star Hotel Chateau du Domaine St. Martin in Vence, France. “They opened the hotel for us, because it was off season,” von Gustedt says. “We had the whole property, so the VW marketing and PR people could focus on the journalists.”

Planning the drive route was more complicated. His team took six days to map the route, which would take the journalists through the French Sea Alps, where 69 miles of tight turns, steep hills, and fast downgrades would put the GTI through its paces. After a lunch break, when the cars would be detailed and refueled, the drivers would take the high-speed interstate to Nice, then follow the scenic Mediterranean coast to Monte Carlo, Monaco, where sections of the trip followed one of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) World Rally Championship’s oldest and most prestigious routes.

Safety and comfort also factored in. The BTM team would provide a detailed route book, signage and technical support, snacks, water, and cell phones for every driver. A coffee break near the famed Monte Carlo Casino would precede their return trip. All told, the drivers would log more than 250 miles over six hours in the car.

“It was to be pure-fun driving for a pure-fun car,” von Gustedt says.

To make the trip even more memorable, BTM also arranged special details, such as convenient flights to Nice, helicopter shuttle service to Vence, relaxed dinners at fine restaurants, and even a typical French evening playing boule with locals on the historic Boule Square.

Hijacking the Boss
With the bait set, VW issued invitations to 12 respected automotive journalists representing some of the most popular magazines in the United States, including Car and Driver, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, Automobile Magazine, and Road & Track. It was a junket they couldn’t refuse.

“If you get an invitation, you don’t want to say no,” says Jamie Vondruska of, a Web site visited by 600,000 VW enthusiasts each month. “They let us know what we’d be doing and who we’d have access to, to help us make the decision. If you’re trying to prioritize your time, those things factor in to deciding which trips to take.”

Access to VW executives was especially appealing. The vehicle “walk around” before the test drive would give journalists a chance to talk one-on-one with Hallmark, in what would be his first official press briefing since joining the company in September 2005.

The journalists also needed access to VW marketing executives and product specialists so they could get exclusive quotes and photos. Kerry Martin, then director of brand innovation, and Paul Spevetz, general manager of A-Class product marketing, answered questions about brand strategy and product engineering throughout the event.

“The press had access to these three (executives) the entire time they were awake,” Czarnik says. “(The executives) started with a product presentation to tell them about the car. Then they drove with the journalists.”

The drive route delivered on the promise of a fun, fast ride. “They took us over some of the most amazing roads I’ve ever driven,” says Vondruska, whose article published in December 2005. “The route was extraordinary from the standpoint of being challenging, scenic, seaside — a wide variety of winding and twisting roads.”

Paired with VW and BTM staff to help navigate the route, the journalists could also chat with VW executives at each pit stop. One brazen editor searching for a scoop ditched his assigned partner and invited VW’s Hallmark to be his navigator after lunch.

“I wanted to spend more time alone with Adrian so I could get an exclusive interview,” says European Car Magazine senior editor Robert Hallstrom. “I noticed Adrian had been driving alone and was heading back to the hotel early. The next few hundred miles were going to be rigorous, so I asked him if he wanted a drive partner.”

Although the PR manager present tried to run interference, Hallmark, a driving enthusiast himself, was game for the adventure. A frequent visitor to Monaco, he took them off course and onto a section of Monte Carlo’s famed Grand Prix circuit. Arriving late to the next stop, Hallstrom claims his peers weren’t overly annoyed by the coup. “It’s friendly competition,” he says.

Hallstrom’s March 2006 article featured a lengthy Q&A with Hallmark, which he conducted and recorded while paddle shifting around corkscrew turns.

PR Payoff
Each of the 12 journalists targeted to carry the GTI message forward wrote a favorable review, the first of which appeared in December 2005. From a few column inches to several pages, the coverage was worth millions in PR value.

“We look at it from the standpoint of media value,” Keyes says. “We measure the magazine, radio, TV, and Web coverage we get. Then we analyze whether we generated less, more, or the same coverage we would have gotten without the PR.”

VW measured the success of the event using two metrics: media value, which equals the dollar cost to buy advertising in an equivalent amount of space; and PR value, which weights that value according to the credibility of the editorial content. “If it’s positive coverage, it’s worth about 2.5 times the media value,” Keyes says. Coming in under budget at $183,200, the event cost a fraction of VW’s calculated media value.

The publicity ignited interest among auto enthusiasts and, combined with the “Make Friends With Your Fast” advertising campaign that broke in mid February, drove traffic to North-American dealerships. VW recorded 1,303 GTI sales that month — five times the previous model sales in February 2004.

“March 2005, the first full month of availability, was the best GTI month in 20 years,” Keyes says. “Since then, it’s outperformed our monthly targets.”

The Golf GTI’s grand entrance created a “halo effect” for the VW brand, generating higher closing rates for sales of other models as well. Not only was GTI back, VW was back. It was one of the most successful vehicle launches in VW history. Though not the sole source of success, the long-lead press event had measurable impact.

“We fulfilled all the expectations of the audience,” Keyes says. “They were prepared to experience something all-new and exciting from VW. The pre-hype on the car was well deserved, and the car didn’t disappoint. It was a sexy location. And the road course BTM came up with showcased the handling and performance braking. It didn’t hurt that in that part of the country, the food and wine are great, too.” e
Cathy Chatfield-Taylor is a freelance writer/editor in the San Francisco Bay area.