At last April's New York International Auto Show, the comedian spoke about his Audi-sponsored boat that he ultimately raced last month from Charleston, SC to Bermuda.
His enthusiasm for Audi vehicles, as well as his confidence in his own sailing ability, seemed over the top considering his last place finish in 2000. But Colbert redeemed himself by finishing second in the race with his crew aboard the Spirit of Juno. Audi, which likes to back winners in races, latches on to an interesting branding idea in its use of Stephen Colbert, who has become an avid, if unofficial, pitchman for the company. He represents a quirky intersection of American liberalism and humor -- an association that smacks of quirkiness and intelligence. But the question remains, especially heading into a Presidential election cycle when tempers over politics and the media will be flaring: Can he help move the sales needle for this German luxury brand?
The Colbert Rapport
Jeff Kuhlman, chief communications officer for Audi, sees Colbert as "an organic brand ambassador" given the comedian's genuine passion for the car company.
The Colbert-Audi story began in 2006 when the automaker became aware through the grapevine that Colbert was smitten with the brand and asked him to help launch its Audi Forum at Park Ave. and 47th in Manhattan.
"The next thing you know, 'Bam!', he's on the phone," Kuhlman recalled. "He was engaged from the get-go."
The political aura around Colbert, far from making him risky business to Audi, bolstered his appeal.
"We've been about this idea of progressiveness," Kuhlman continued. "It is one of the main tenets of the brand. He's a progressive. He's taken comedy to a new level. What's most progressive about him? He gets people to think."
Audi, for example, was the only company to advertise on the three major networks on election night, and seeks to enhance through association the cachet of its forward-leaning tendencies.
"I have such a close relationship with my [Audi top-of-the-line sedan] A8 that I've told it things that I don't tell me own family," Colbert said. "My friends and family either relax or exhilarate me, but only my Audi can do both at the same time." That humor bent propelling a progressive agenda, some branding specialists think, may be best channeled through a non-traditional voice.
"He's, when we look at brand archetypes, what we call the jester," said Cheryl Berman, former chairman of Leo Burnett and current founder of the ad agency Unbundled. "The jester is someone who has a playful way of telling the truth. That's the kind of comedy, that's the kind of connection that mostly Gen Y people appreciate the most...that sort of quick humor that works so well against current events."
The definition of "progressive"
The broad appeal of Colbert's political vision, in Audi's view, sits well with its target consumer base -- typically within the 25-54 age range for the company. But not just the whole demographic. Audi executives, in their messaging, target people who put a lot of thought into everything and aren't set in their ways.
Why? Because Audi is a challenger brand, taking on the establishment of Mercedes-Benz and BMW, and to some degree Porsche, as that German sports car company has expanded into SUVs and a sedan that directly take on Audi [though Porsche has recently joined the Volkswagen Group of carmakers to which Audi also belongs]. The sly rationality that Colbert epitomizes seems in keeping with what Audi has seen of its clientele through market research.
"It's very consistent with who we appeal to as a brand," Kuhlman said. "Audi customers are very investigative in their research when purchasing a vehicle. They know about the technology. At the dealership, they don't need to be told the story of lane departure, of quattro, or of clean diesel. It's different from people who say, 'I see that car, it looks cool, and I need it.' In this day of instant communications, that they would take the time to watch the Colbert show at 11 o'clock at night, they want people to challenge their thinking. I think that's progressive."
But the Colbert connection to Audi is more nuanced and complicated and comes with its inevitable repercussions.
Risky business and avoiding the vanilla
It's no secret in advertising that celebrities can give a serious boost to a brand, and car commercials -- from P. Diddy's 2011 Mercedes Super Bowl ads, to Tim Allen's agreement to be the distinctive voiceover for Chevy ads, and Jeff Bridges's voice-over work for Hyundai -- have brought a certain luxurious or rugged aura to the vehicles being hawked.
There's always a danger, though, in choosing someone to represent your brand with widely broadcasted opinions.
"Stephen Colbert is a risky, but potentially good fit for the brand," said Ole Petersen, Chief Strategy Officer at StrawberryFrog, a strategic branding firm. "The Colbert persona has an independent spirit, challenges authority, and tweaks the staid conventions of the establishment. He delivers incisive and humorous commentary, with a subversive flair that allows the audience to feel superiority towards the idiocy of the powers-in-charge."
That high-profile non-conformity can open a Pandora's box.
"It is inherently risky tying a celebrated brand to a famous personality, especially one known not to follow traditional routes and dictates," Petersen continued. "The relationship certainly has the potential to blow up, and existing customer base could get disenchanted...but with risk comes reward."
Indeed, sometimes going for broke can yield the biggest results, and Audi may have made the right choice in not trying to be too politically correct or appease the whims of its whole consumer base.
"I'm a big advocate of, 'Let's not go for the big vanilla,'" Unbundled's Berman countered. "The big vanilla is 'let's not alienate anybody. Let's try and include everybody.' If you do that, you have something vanilla that no one really cares about or listens to a lot of the time."
The question, of course, is whether Colbert can help Audi move the sales needle or whether this is merely a bunch of razzle-dazzle fun.
Audi delivered a 1.1 billion Euro (about $1.6 billion) operating profit ahead of many projections that had put estimates in the high 800-million area. In the U.S., Audi sales this year are on a record pace through May as several of its new models have caught fire with the luxury buying audience.
Sadly, AOL Autos couldn't catch up with Colbert this month to hear him gush over his favorite German brand. But we are pretty sure he would say that he was solely responsible for the company's great sales performance this year.
The Bottom Line: Stephen Colbert, for some, may be a risky choice for Audi. He is bound to lampoon and possibly irritate those in political power as he did in 2010 when he testified, in his TV persona, before a Congressional committee about immigration and agricultural jobs. He and fellow Comedy Central bigwig Jon Stewart also held a rally in Washington, D.C. last year to mimic and mock the one held by conservative media personality Glenn Beck, called "The Rally To Restore Sanity." But Audi likes the fact that Colbert is polarizing and attracts crowds.