Client: American Honda Motors, Torrance, California / Totem, Toronto, Canada

An adventure in next-generation brand storytelling

Apex is a Folio-award-winning cross-platform experiment in premium content for Acura in California, centered around a car magazine not quite like any other.

As the editorial and creative director of Totem, Patrick had a couple of important jobs. The first was to modernize and reinvent a venerable old agency’s creative approach, recruiting and leading a new generation of creative talent alongside. The second was to help its longstanding clients – some of North America’s largest organisations – do the same, to see what the future of storytelling might look like for their brands. The big question: when we’re all already drowning in disposable campaigns and junk, meaningless-metric driven “content marketing”, what room is there for meaningful work and long term strategy?

With the team at American Honda Motors in Torrance, California, Patrick found clients eager to explore that question. As they faced the challenge of creating premium content worthy of their Acura brand’s renewed focus on hand-crafted precision and luxury, it was clear to them, and us, that their existing mass-market print magazine was no longer fit for purpose. For their new supercar, the company’s North American design and engineering teams were given a mandate to break all the rules and come up with a car that could reinvigorate the brand. The marketing team’s challenge, laid down by the car’s chief engineer, was that the storytelling needed to be as next-generation as the product itself.

But this is an easier challenge to set than it is to meet. In an organization as complex as theirs, with so many moving parts, a vast array of opinionated players, from engineers and designers through to dealers, and external agencies of record touching on all aspects of communication, breaking through to find the right message and the right way to tell it takes time and patience. Over the course of a year, Patrick worked deep inside the organization, getting to know and work with all of these stakeholders, helping to pioneer a new interagency approach to content gathering built not around requirements spreadsheets but around curious journalistic enquiry. 

To pull this off, he recruited a fresh creative team with the same spirit as those rule-breaking engineers, collaborating with Michèle Champagne and a band of world-class editorial, design and photographic misfits. This was a team that, like Patrick, were willing to push at the boundaries, and help the client push internally to achieve results and access they’d been told weren’t possible. The trust Patrick earned inside American Honda Motors meant that we could break many of the rules of a traditional auto publication, from how the cars are written about to the ways they are portrayed visually. What we made, ultimately, was an adventure in next-generation magazine making and brand storytelling, drawing together the threads of a story that couldn’t be found in the performance details.

Apex won the Ozzie for best new custom content magazine design in the 2016 Folio Awards, and was a finalist in other categories there as well as at the 2016 Content Marketing Awards. More importantly, the team at American Honda Motors, from the engineers through to the marketing department, felt they’d been given a chance to tell the story of their brand in a way they previously couldn’t have imagined. 

Pushing the limits also meant complex technical requirements – producing 100,000 magazines full of lush car photography on uncoated indie-magazine paper meant experimenting with new production techniques, finding and testing printers capable of high-end production at such mass volume, and pushing the limits of our own knowledge on photographic retouching – our aim was to show the cars not as plasticky over-photoshopped fantasies, but as real world objects of beauty, with rain on the body and dust on the windscreen.

The magazine was distributed by direct mail distribution, individually numbered, to AHM’s highest value customers alongside distribution at events and premium car shows. It was also taken up and republished by Acura Canada.

Over the course of the project, Apex became a fulcrum for something much more ambitious. Though the magazine was the visible centrepiece of the project, a key aim, internally, was to help the marketing team gather a suite of raw, reusable assets – from photography to interviews – that could be used across all channels. 

Working in close coordination with agencies including MullenLowe and Razorfish, Patrick spearheaded exploratory interview sessions and production exercises, with designers and engineers. Due to the deep trust he had earned, along with the protection of NDAs, these non-media-trained experts, used to high levels of secrecy, were let off the leash to tell their own story through honest conversation with somebody who knows more than a little about how to interview. The resulting assets, carefully vetted and approved, were used across online product pages and email marketing for Acura to that were used on product pages on acura.com, and in promotional material supporting MullenLowe’s advertising campaign.

But it wasn’t all about cars. We also worked to help the client sell the internal understanding that brand marketing can’t just be about the product itself. For our centrepiece travel story, we sent photographer Norman Wong and journalist Elmo Keep to the swamplands of Louisiana in an Acura MDX, letting the story focus on the things they know how to do well, more than what the car does well. We couldn’t quite convince the client to let us start the story with the car bogged in the bayou as Elmo wanted, but still, the result is a brilliant, energetic read with stunning photography and a genuine feel for the place and its people.
Patrick and the Totem team also produced their own video content as part of the Apex project, sending a camera crew and their drones out in a follow vehicle behind Elmo and Norman to create exclusive material for Acura’s YouTube channel. This material also subtly highlighted the Acura experiential team’s strong relationship with Jazz Fest.