BMW AG was in danger of stalling out. When the 103-year-old company began planning a media event to debut its Vision iNext concept electric crossover vehicle to the world in 2018, it wanted a way of showcasing the advanced car that would set it as far apart from other alternatively powered automobiles as the Autobahn is from a country road.
Working with Vok Dams Events GmbH, the auto manufacturer believed whatever kind of media extravaganza it produced had to be on par in its own way with the car's mind-boggling technology: The autonomous Vision iNext's exterior gradually morphs from warm copper to dark rose when in the shade; an "Intelligent-Beam" technology creates an interactive projection screen on a given surface inside the car; and touch-sensitive upholstery allows you to crank up "Bohemian Rhapsody" or turn down "Bolero" on the car speakers by drawing a circle on your seat with a finger. "An important part of the briefing from BMW was 'Visionary products like this deserve visionary presentations,'" says Colja Dams, CEO of Vok Dams Events. "That was our challenge, and it was a big one."
BMW AG used a customized Boeing 777F plane from Lufthansa Cargo AG to fly its Vision iNext concept car to three continents in five days.
It wasn't as if the automaker was a stranger to ingenious press events that cause the media's collective jaw to hit the pavement. In 2010, for its "Joy 3D" campaign, BMW simultaneously projection-mapped the exteriors of two large adjacent office buildings in Suntec City, Singapore. But that media event, like all its others, shared what BMW believed was an intrinsic drawback: It was isolated to a single location, with only local or regional media likely to attend. Yet in that very shortcoming, BMW saw fortune beckoning. "We asked, 'Why don't we turn it around 180 degrees?'" says Ingo Wirth, BMW's project lead for the event. "Instead of asking the media to come to us, we'll bring the car to them."
Off to a Flying Start
But what specifically would the ambitious, if ambiguous, idea of bringing the car to the media look like? The company quickly defined it as connecting with the press in several worldwide settings virtually all at once, and not over a long stretch of time, since that would diffuse the media's short-lived attention span. That is, a drawn-out, sequential event starting in Europe might harvest attention at first, but by the time it reached the United States or China weeks later, the initial thunder of media interest would weaken to a barely discernible whisper. Starting there, BMW rapidly distilled and detailed the idea even more. To obtain the maximum media exposure globally and yet avoid prolonging the event, BMW concluded that targeting four cities on three continents in five days would strike an effective balance. "Doing it so quickly wouldn't give the media a chance to ignore us like yesterday's news," Dams says.
The individual venues BMW chose were based mostly on their alternative-fuel-friendly environments (Munich, New York, San Francisco, and Beijing), a degree of insightful event planning on par with the company's renowned engineering prowess. Munich was perhaps an obvious choice, given that it's BMW's headquarters and thus a suitable launch pad for the events. New York was fertile ground because by 2025, 20 percent of newly registered cars in the Empire State will have to be electrically powered. San Francisco represented a similarly receptive audience, with new buildings there now mandated to offer charging stations for electric cars in their parking lots. But Beijing arguably stood to be the most susceptible to the Vision iNext's environment-saving charms, given the fact that China's electric-car sales catapulted by nearly 62 percent in 2018, according to the country's Association of Automobile Manufacturers. And that growth spurt is poised to continue unabated, as the same organization forecasts electric vehicle sales in China will surge another 23 percent in 2019.
To measure the success of this massive media campaign, BMW set a handful of objectives it felt would prove an accurate odometer of just how far the multinational event reached. It aimed for extensive coverage in multiple high-circulation car-centric and other publications. Additionally, BMW hoped to expose the Vision iNext to 20 million people via those publications' social-media platforms, along with an additional 20,000 through its own social outlets.
Stakes on a Plane
The logistics of delivering the event to these cities under time-starved conditions weren't just imposing; they were downright intimidating. One problem in particular was a very practical consideration: there was only one concept car to go around, as the Vision iNext wasn't scheduled to go into production until 2021. "We weren't able to beam that one car around like the guys from 'Star Trek,'" Dams says, "so we decided to go with the fastest mode of transportation we had available and use an airplane."
As far as anyone at BMW could tell, using a plane as an automotive launch platform would be an industry first, a kind of promotional frontier. But the thing about frontiers is they're uncharted and therefore dangerous because of the inherent unknowns that lie there. BMW would need a plane capable of ferrying the car and what would essentially be a dazzling exhibit with vast amounts of multimedia equipment that must be both set up and broken down in the relative blink of an eye. To shuttle the iNext from continent to continent, BMW chose Lufthansa Cargo AG airlines. The wholly owned subsidiary of Deutsche Lufthansa AG offered several advantages that made it the carrier of choice. First, besides being headquartered in Germany, BMW felt Lufthansa was a high-flying version of its own brand attributes of excellence and distinction. Additionally, Lufthansa Cargo employed Boeing Co.'s 777F long-range, wide-body twin-engine, which was more than capable of meeting BMW's extensive geographic needs for the media events. Named the Worldliner by Boeing for its ability to fly nonstop between almost any two airports on the planet without refueling, the 777F bragged a range of 8,555 nautical miles, nearly one-third the circumference of the Earth.
After checking in at a nearby hotel, media reps were bused to the airplane for their encounter with the Vision iNext.
Second, to craft the audiovisual spectacle it wanted inside the airplane, BMW would have to outfit the interior as if it were an elaborate multimedia showroom – think of it as creating an intricate, even sumptuous, exhibit with wings. BMW planned to build a floor that split the plane's fuselage at its widest point (i.e., a 20-foot, 4-inch span) to accommodate a rotating, glossy black carousel. Rounding out the interior renovation would be a meet-and-greet area and two lounges placed at opposite ends of the 209-foot-long airplane. Its audiovisual elements would border on Las-Vegas-level lavish, with nearly a dozen 13,000-ANSI lumen projectors, 78,000 LEDs contained in 165 video modules, and an additional 4.7 miles of wiring.
But with only about two months between the finalization of the plan in midsummer and the September launch of the event – which the company christened the Vision iNext World Flight – BMW had to ensure it could squeeze its sizable setup inside the plane. Bringing in a crew of more than 120 specialists in exhibition-stand construction, BMW first created a partial mockup of the 777F fuselage and portions of the interior design at full scale to ensure everything from the screens to the carousel would conform to the plane's dimensions. If it didn't, the event would be stuck on the ground with no more hope of taking off than a puddle jumper during a blizzard. But when all the many components fit into the facsimile as snugly as a seat in economy class, the armada of workers began building out the real 777F for the event.
Of course, while the Vision iNext may be capable of running by itself, the media event still demanded considerable human intervention. Each stop required up to 20 staffers, including speakers, caterers, and BMW car designers, with many drawn from local resources. A setup crew of four – who flew in separately to the designated stops – practiced preparing the plane in the mocked-up version until they could ready it in a few hours with near-military precision. (Most worrying was the enormous but fragile lighting systems, which had to be perfectly secured without fail to withstand the shocks and vibrations of multiple takeoffs and landings.) Yet no amount of preparation could alter a timeline that was as tight as a noose: On average, the company estimated that at each stop it would have all of 10 hours to park the plane, clear customs, prepare the stage, position the car, arrange the guest lounge, and rehearse presentations with Flash-like speed to meet the schedule of four cities on three continents in five days.
Cleared for Takeoff
The pre-event promotion started in early August via general and vague teasers on the company's Facebook page and YouTube accounts, followed by snail mail and email invitations sent to 400 automotive, technology, and business journalists, plus social-media influencers. In return for their getting an introduction to the avant-garde car before BMW revealed it to the world at large, media members would not be permitted to carry their mobile phones or take pictures during the launch. Rather, they would receive a media package from the company with selected visuals to publish following the event.
About three weeks after BMW had prepped the targeted media, the outfitted and branded 777F began its journey, speeding at 550 miles per hour to the four far-ranging cities and roughly 300 of the 400 media reps it invited. When the plane hit the tarmac at the respective airports, it taxied to the designated spot where the event itself would actually take place. In Munich, San Francisco, and Beijing, that meant a hangar or cargo area, while at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, its destination was a de-icing tent. For the next few hours, the staff furiously prepped and set up the interior. In the meantime, journalists gathered in what BMW called the "Pre-Boarding Area," which was simply a nearby hotel. There, airport security cleared the guests while BMW registered them and took the opportunity to temporarily relieve them of their phones until after the event. Thus shorn of their devices, attendees were shepherded onto a bus and transported to the plane a few minutes away. Arriving usually around noon, the guests were guided through the plane's massive cargo door that served as the event's entrance. Greeting them were BMW staffers and board of management member Dr. Klaus Fröhlich.
The interior of the Boeing 777F was outfitted with 165 video LED modules that immersed attendees in a dazzling multimedia presentation.
Once they entered the reception area, media reps received a quick welcome speech, then watched a roughly 2-minute-long movie on the first half-circle screen spinning the tale behind the new concept car. When the video wrapped up, the screen – which until that moment blocked out the rest of the cabin from visitors' view – descended into the floor, triggering a flashing light show and a sound system that blared heart-pounding, techno-style beats. The LED-encrusted floor and screens running much of the length of both sides, as well as a second half-circle screen behind the car, burned with lights and imagery that made the plane seem like a kind of transparent submarine slinking through the thickest forest or cruising along the deepest sea. The lustrous black carousel supporting the Vision iNext spun while the concept car, remote-controlled by a staffer, inched forward, effecting an illusion of it driving much further than it actually was.
What the attendees saw of the Vision iNext was itself a kind of vision. The exaggerated grill suggested some genetically engineered beast, and its rims gave the impression of a giant ninja's throwing stars. Visitors could pepper the car designers and other staffers with questions on its technological wonders, such as how unlocking the vehicle prompts its blue accents on the outside to light up, or how parking it in the shadows stimulates the exterior paint to morph its color to match the lowered light level. Other marvels included its Alexa-like personal assistant and the seat's interactive jacquard cloth that can operate the car's music speakers like digital controls made of textiles. Smaller informational exhibits in the second lounge toward the back offered more detail on each of these technologies.
Like an automotive Brigadoon, the event was brief, concluding in a mere hour. But its impact was as potent as it was fleeting. "There is so much 'been there, done that' with car launches, but this was completely original," said one Corporate Event Awards judge. "They got rid of all the tired clichés and produced a truly innovative and unexpected experience, which clearly took an incredible amount of foresight and precision."
An "incredible amount" could also describe the quantity of media coverage generated by the BMW Vision iNext World Flight. The event was reported in an extensive assortment of publications and websites, such as Forbes.com, Jalopnik.com, Car and Driver, Spiegel.de, Bild am Sonntag, and Cnet.com, whose reach encompassed about 24 million readers. Aiming for a potential audience of 20 million social-media users through those outlets' digital channels, (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.), BMW racked up almost 42 million, besting its objective by more than 100 percent. Finally, the company hoped for 20,000 interactions on its own social-media platforms, but ended up with almost 61,000, thereby tripling its goal. "No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings," poet William Blake once wrote. BMW ascended on wings of its own and devised an event that reached so high, it might never come back to earth. E