By: Andrew Adam Newman, The New York Times
The last time the United States men’s team won an Olympic gold medal in the two-man bobsled competition was 1936, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House and a gallon of gas cost 10 cents.
Now BMW of North America, which has built six two-person bobsleds for the United States men’s and women’s teams competing in Russia this year, is hoping to help change that.
Since 2011, the automaker has been working with the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation to develop a prototype.
The effort has been led by Michael Scully, a creative director atDesignworksUSA, a consultancy owned by the BMW Group that along with designing vehicles for the automaker is hired for projects by nonautomotive companies, including John Deere, Microsoft and Coca-Cola.
On Sunday, a documentary about the project, “Driving on Ice,” will air on NBC. It features Mr. Scully and athletes including Steven Holcomb, who won a gold medal in the four-man bobsled event in 2010, and Elana Meyers, who won a bronze in the two-woman bobsled in 2010. (The four-man bobsled continues to be made by the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project.)
While BMW produced the documentary and is paying for it to air as part of an advertising contract with the network, it has the narrative arc and tone of an independent documentary, not a commercial.
The documentary shows how Mr. Scully, who in the past has designed racecars, adapts his expertise to bobsleds, which present aerodynamic challenges including being sideways in turns.
Introduced during the commercial breaks for the documentary will be two new Olympic-themed spots for the brand, with one featuring video of the bobsled being developed and no BMW vehicles, and the other taking a more traditional approach, with the automaker’s cars and S.U.V.’s driving along snowy roads to transport athletes to training sessions.
Television and digital advertising for the campaign, as well as social media strategy, is by Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal & Partners in New York, part of MDC. Production of the documentary is by UM Studios, the content arm of Universal McCann, which is part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.
BMW North America — which declined to reveal what it spent on the six-year Olympic sponsorship through 2016, the bobsleds or the documentary, or its projected advertising expenditures for the campaign — spent $75.9 million on advertising in the first nine months of 2013 and $159.7 million for the full year of 2012, according to the Kantar Media unit of WPP.
For the first 11 months of 2013, BMW sold 244,061 cars, an increase of 11 percent over the same period in 2012, according to Automotive News. It ranks second behind Mercedes-Benz among luxury vehicles.
BMW is a progenitor of what has come to be known as branded content. Its BMW Films, introduced in 2001 mostly for online viewing, featured stars like Clive Owen in short films driving BMWs, but with no sales pitches.
Trudy Hardy, the vice president of marketing for BMW of North America, said the company was involved with the Olympics in a more tangible way than simply having permission to use its logo.
“The way we entered this sponsored relationship is much deeper than the rights to the rings,” she said. “We wanted to find ways to make our athletes’ performance better.”
Applying expertise developed for cars to other applications is what BMW calls “technology transfer,” and in previous Olympic Games, BMW has adapted its software to help swimmers analyze their starts and turns and long-jumpers their jumps. But Ms. Hardy said the bobsled project would have more resonance than the brand’s earlier Olympic efforts.
“Software systems are a little more difficult for people to understand, but this hardware makes it much easier for consumers to translate our brand in the physical sense,” Ms. Hardy said.
Scott Donaton, chief content officer at UM Studios, said that when viewers of the Olympics were barraged with commercial messages, BMW would have something else: a story.
“In a time when technology gives people the ability to filter out any branded messages that they don’t want to see, storytelling is the way to engage audiences,” Mr. Donaton said.
Rohit Bhargava, a social media strategist and the author of “Likeonomics,” said that with the bobsled collaboration, “BMW is tapping into a pretty human desire to go behind the scenes,” adding that the automaker is uniquely suited to do so in this instance because it is so integral to the story.
Dan Mannix, chief executive of LeadDog Marketing Group, which specializes in sports marketing, said the bobsled-related content would help BMW stand apart from typical car advertising.
“There’s so much car advertising on TV that shows cars driving through deserts and mountain roads and it all just blurs together, but the advertising that is more about the bobsleds is much more compelling,” Mr. Mannix said.
But there is, he added, a risk.
“If the team does well, BMW can point to its involvement, but if there is a problem and the bobsled cruises off the course, they could get a bunch of bad P.R.,” he said.
BMW, which is based in Germany, is also sponsoring the German bobsled team, but is not overhauling their bobsleds as it is for the Americans.
“How do we know,” joked a recent blog post on Gizmodo, “that BMW, a German-based company, isn’t secretly sabotaging the U.S. team’s efforts to win the gold?”
Stacy Morris, a corporate communications manager with BMW of North America, said there was nothing incongruous about the sponsorship.
“We consider ourselves an American car company just as much as a German car company,” Ms. Morris said.