From the hyperbolic advertising showcase of the Super Bowl, there emerged two car brands that appear bent on changing our perceptions of their vehicles and brand experience. They come from totally different cultures and yet in some ways their new approaches share similar strategies.
Volkswagen’s turnaround began about 18 months ago when they shifted their branding and advertising communications from the edgy Crispin, Porter + Bogusky agency (the folks who brought you the Creepy Burger King) to Deutsch, Los Angeles. Gone are the confusing spots with German-accented “engineers” in white suits poking fun at Japanese tuners. (“Dere’s German engineering in da howse!”) Gone are the controversial, though in my opinion very effective, realistic crash spots that scared the wits out of many viewers while touting VW’s 5-star crash test ratings. Also missing is the last gasp gimmick with the talking vintage VW bug, again with German accent and interviewing, you guessed it-the German supermodel Heidi Klum.
Danke shoen for that.
Not gone, however, is Crispin’s tagline “Das Auto,” which has remained as the signoff to a series of new spots, including the Super Bowl hit-of-the-night where a pint-sized Darth Vader attempted to channel the Force into all manner of appliances and the family dog before apparently succeeding with the VW Passat sedan in the driveway. (With a little help from Dad and a remote start feature.) Where Crispin’s approach was quirky to say the least, the new spots push warm humor, family values and reasonable price points. How fiendishly simple of them.
VW’s basic marketing strategy really hasn’t changed. They are targeting the low to mid-priced segment of the car market by offering “German engineering” at an affordable price. The term finds its way repeatedly into the communications for the carmaker and is, shall we say, short hand for “built just like a BMW, Porsche, or Mercedes.” Of course, one of VW’s biggest brand problems is the hundreds of thousands of former owners of late nineties to early 2000s VW models which suffered mightily from quality defects that ranked them near the bottom of all car brands in multiple surveys. So many people have literally sworn off this brand of German extraction that VW sales have fallen well over 60% from their peak and they now are fighting to keep even 1% market share in the U.S.
By comparison, Chrysler is taking a similar tact, but in an unexpected way with their “Imported from Detroit” tagline introduced in a lush, two-minute narrative featuring the scrappy rapper Eminem, who is as unlikely a successor to Lee Iacocca as I can imagine, but who is clearly identified with the bootstrap aspirations of the city. Ironically, Chrysler had its own dalliance with German engineering as a component of its brand during its ill-fated marriage to Daimler in 1998. Brand history buffs may still recall the silly “Dr. Z” campaign featuring Dieter Zetsche, the CEO of Daimler, who claimed that Mercedes engineering was finding its way into Chrysler products, though apparently not vice versa. Over a decade later, what Chrysler is now saying is “American engineering” is their point of difference.
They are making a bold move that just might be a brilliant play on both our sympathy for Detroit and its auto industry struggles, and our nationalistic desire to be more globally competitive. That’s a deep well of collective emotion that, if properly tapped, could bring more buyers to the number three of the Big Three. Chrysler is promising new models and used the Eminem epic to introduce the Chrysler 200, although little was said about the car itself amid the plucking of our heartstrings. But the premise that Detroit will fight back with Chrysler leading the way is the kind of story you want to believe in for the people of Detroit and for us as a country. And who would dare to say otherwise?
So both brands are tapping equity in nationalist perceptions to build their image. VW is finding new ways to deliver the same message, while Chrysler has asked us to look into their hearts and our own to understand the drive they have to succeed. VW has made the safe play and is using more middle of the road advertising to do it. Chrysler is fighting for its life and has placed a big bet on their new idea. I can tell you that I don’t know if it will work-it’s a risky move. But I can also tell you that I hope that it does.
Good luck, Detroit. You had me at “Imported.”