words: Aaron Plante
Editor’s note: This article originally ran in the Q2_2019 issue of quattro magazine.
Has Audi’s decade-long relationship with Tony Stark paid off?
Suicidal Tendencies’ Institutionalized is blaring as Tony Stark works on his ’32 Ford in his garage. Pepper Potts unlocks the workshop door, simultaneously cutting the music, hounding Stark to get going. As he walks to the rear of the shop in the far corner, first in line from the exit ramp, sits a silver coupe with black side blade that will become synonymous with the first generation R8. This introduces Audi’s first “everyday supercar” to the general public exactly eleven minutes and forty-three seconds into Iron Man.
Another 43 seconds later the car is finally seen barreling down a California highway, the sound of its V8 intentionally highlighted as a Rolls Royce Phantom struggles to keep up. The R8 is featured prominently three more times in that first movie.
To many, Iron Man was the first time they’d seen an R8 and the first time they’d seen the four rings on a supercar. Of course, we know there had been several prototypes and one-offs (i.e., Group S, Avus quattro, quattro Spyder, and the Le Mans quattro from which it was modeled), but the R8 was a production supercar. Its appearance in Iron Man tied Audi to Marvel’s genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, a tie that has held for the last 10 years. It continues to this day as we know ,thanks to actor Robert Downey Jr.’s confirmation at an Audi event in L.A., that the e-tron GT will co-star in this quarter’s seminal conclusion to the Avengers story: Avengers Endgame.
Since then, the R8 has appeared in six MCU films, had only one model update (premiered in Avengers Age of Ultron), and sold over 9000 units. We have watched the R8 evolve alongside Stark. But has its direct connection to Iron Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) had an influence in R8 sales? For that matter, has Audi’s presence in the MCU as a whole contributed to market recognition, brand awareness, and ultimately sales? In order to answer that, let’s first assess Audi’s footprint in the MCU.
In addition to Audi’s connection with Iron Man (Audi vehicles and specifically the R8 has appeared in every film with Tony Stark excluding The Avengers (and post-credit scenes such as in The Incredible Hulk) they have been featured in 7 of 22 films (32 percent), and present in 45 percent of films. If one pulls out the cosmic and period piece movies like Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, and Thor: Ragnarok, the stats jump to 39 percent and 56 percent respectively.
Consider that: featured in 32 percent of the 22 current Marvel films. If we add Spider-man: Far from Home, which has trailer-confirmed sightings of the e-tron, A5 Sportback, Q7, and an A7, that bumps it to 35 percent. No other automaker can match that exposure save Aston Martin’s 12 appearances in 26 James Bond films. But the Bond tie-in is over a 56-year period as compared to 10 years for Audi and Marvel.
In the history of product placement, Audi’s relationship with Marvel is significant. From Audi’s perspective, it was the beginning of a rebranding. According to Loren Angelo, director of marketing for Audi of America, Iron Manwas a key component of setting the right tone. “When we read the script for Iron Man, he was someone who was self-made. He utilized technology and a certain level of personal intelligence to create great things. That was a perfect fit for Audi because that’s exactly what we’ve done with our brand,” Angelo told Automotive News back in 2016.
Audi has gone beyond placing cars in Marvel movies. As the films have grown in popularity, it has used its relationship with Marvel as a stage for dealers to host events like early screenings, movie-themed get-togethers, and watch parties. These provide opportunities for dealers to engage with prospects, customers, and their families. According to dealers, Marvel movies bring hype and excitement before the film premieres and they see residual showroom traffic a few months later.
In addition, the collaboration has created cross-promotional posters, ads, comic books, and commercial short films showcasing Audi vehicles and Audi technology (see The Chase, Driving Lesson, and Stan Lee’s Cameo School, all created by Audi).
According to Angelo, Audi placement in Marvel films has likely been a part of the 30 percent increase in brand awareness since 2008. “To look at it over the many years that we’ve been involved with them, it truly demonstrates how a studio is willing to work with a brand to make sure that we’re doing what can best benefit both of our products,” Angelo continued. A look at Audi’s annual sales since 2008 certainly validates consistent sales growth to which increased brand awareness played a significant role.
Infinity Lore and Data
So does Angelo’s and Audi dealers’ perceptions hold up? Cross-referencing Audi brand sales alongside the MCU movie releases featuring Audis may serve as a lagging indicator. First some caveats: Data was obtained through three different websites (e.g., carsalesbase.com, motrolix.com, goodcarbadcar.net) with annual totals cross-referenced with Audi Annual Reports and press releases for validation. Monthly data prior to 2014 was derived based on individual model data aggregated and compared against Audi annual-reported totals and scrubbed. All data covers US-only sales.
A following graph outlines two data sets. On the left axis, the monthly deliveries of Audis are charted by month for years featuring Audis in Marvel films. On the right axis, the cumulative monthly totals chart total Audi deliveries from 2014-1018 displayed as an area graph (blue-shaded region) in order to establish and validate seasonal sales trends.
The first thing to notice is that nearly all the annual lines plotted follow the curve of the cumulative average implying that total Audi sales have seasonal patterns with high sales in December followed by August, and the lowest sales in January and February. The red lines demark when the relevant MCU films were released in the United States. Most years show a small spike in May but then no growth or a slight drop in sales in June. Similarly, most years show a spike after July. Comparing this to the cumulative monthly data reinforces that these spikes are more likely the result of season buying habits than Marvel’s impact on car sales. Although one could postulate the 10 years of Marvel influence have merely been a ploy by Thanos to manipulate Audi’s seasonal trend and obtain the Infinity Stones.
But the story doesn’t end there. Some films featured specific models that premiered either slightly before or after the film in which it was featured. As noted above, the R8 premiered alongside the invincible Iron Man and the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe. If we focus on those specific models (also known as Hero Cars), will we see a correlation between model sales and movies?
In Stark Contrast
We know the R8 and Tony Stark are strongly tied. In fact, in a 2008 marketing video both Director John Favreau and Producer (future MCU big boss), Kevin Feige, celebrated the synergy the R8 had both with Stark and with Iron Man going so far as to liken the LED headlamps (new for the time) to the helmet’s eyes and visible mid-engine V8 as similar features to Iron Man’s Mark III arc reactor. Incidentally, they also lamented on their failure to flip the R8 in a final scene against Iron Monger forcing them to have to rewrite the final battle. The car wouldn’t flip as they wanted it to…quattro!
Below is a look into how sales of the R8 relate to movie releases.
In 2008, the R8 showed some of its biggest growth. It had a spike in May during the films debut before dropping back down to slowed sales in June. However, after that, it showed steady growth, ending 2008 strong. There are a few other factors to consider. Overall, Audi reduced sales by 6.1% compared to 2007 and that would continue in 2009 until the release and distribution of the Q5. More important, by the second half of 2008, the US was hit hard by the housing market crisis with collapsing US stock markets and less jobs leading to a sharp decline in consumer activity and challenges in the auto loan market.
At the same time the R8 was new, so a ramp-up time to purchase could be expected. Still, the release of the movie and prominence of the R8 certainly improved the brand and model recognition and likely contributed to the increase in deliveries in a challenging year for American consumers and luxury purchases (see orange trend line).
Other film releases do not appear to have helped with R8 sales. Coincidentally, the amount of screen time and focus also reduced in subsequent films for the R8 while more focal marketing around the movie increased. Regardless, outside of its inaugural release, associating R8 sales to the MCU is circumstantial at best.
Web of Buys
The TT has also been featured in multiple MCU films. In 2015, it had a relatively short stint as the landing platform for Captain America in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The scene was originally much longer in which Captain America asks the driver if they can catch a speeding truck with the TT, to which she confidently responds, yes. Unfortunately, it was cut for timing. The TT (Mk3) was released to the US as a 2016 before being heavily featured in a chase scene in Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017. So the Marvel movies served as a sort of bookends for the release of the current TT.
Taking a look at their sales and comparing relevant MCU releases against the car’s official release shares some interesting information. While the sharp spike is most likely due to a mid-year release, there is certainly a steep spike from July to August before settling to a more consistent average of about 230 units. Expectedly, the 2016 year started slow before spiking in March, trailing in July, and returning to an average of 250 units. In 2017, Peter Parker’s abusive driving of the TTS roadster and Ned’s man-in-the-chair support, including Googling the TTS’s instruction manuals to help Parker turn on the Audi’s lights, seemed to help a previously slow summer to smooth out the yearly average to 191 units per month. The following year saw a nearly 50 percent decrease in TT sales. It is feasible the pre- and post-market release features helped sustain healthy market penetration of the TT.
Evaluating other prominently featured models like the A8 (featured in Iron Man2 and 3, Captain America: Civil War, and Spider-Man: Homecoming) and the Q7 (featured in Iron Man and Captain America: Civil War) showed no positive sales effect (see figures below).
So critics, Audi, and Marvel all find value in the over-ten year relationship the two parties have had and apparently still do have. Directing that value to sales as absolutes amid the innumerable factors such as geopolitics, US economy, and seasonality of car buying is difficult at best. But there is one trend line here to which you can get direct benefit…if you’re going to buy an Audi, do it in January.
The e-tron GT concept’s presence in Avengers: Endgame serves as a sort of bookend to the R8’s kickoff to the ten-plus year campaign. Both leveraged the films to premiere a new-to-the-brand product. Both signaled key turning points in Audi’s direction. Both remind you that if it’s good enough for Tony Stark, it’s good enough for you.
As the original generation of Avengers begin to retire, will 2019 serve as endgame between Audi and Marvel, or merely the latest superhero film featuring the Four Rings?
Think you know your Audi vehicles in Marvel films? There are a total of 37 different models/platforms that have appeared in 11 MCU films (or trailers and promos) to date. Not all of them are featured or necessarily intended to be in a scene. Can you name them all? See the back of this book for the answers. Editor’s note: I guess you just have to get a copy of the magazine to find the answers.