I have to admit, there’s just something about the VW brand that makes me want to smile. Through five decades, VW has consistently zigged where others have zagged. Their campaigns have winked at us, nudged us, sometimes elbowed us in the ribs. While never a huge player in the American automotive market, its cars have become cultural icons, a symbol of the hippie generation, the genesis for dune buggies, and the star of a Disney movie.
It all started in 1959, when Volkswagen of America moved its advertising business to a new ad agency, Doyle, Dane, Bernbach (DDB), at the time a relatively unknown player in the New York ad world. Partner Bill Bernbach would eventually be considered one of the top ad men of all time and a major player in the creative revolution of advertising.
Mr. Bernbach and his creative team of writer Julian Koenig and art director Helmut Krone set to work on an automobile brand that had its roots in Nazi Germany. “The People’s Car,” was slow, plain, and small. Its 4-cylinder engine was air cooled and mounted in the back of the vehicle. As a car, it was the antithesis of American cruisers of that time with their ever-growing tail fins, powerful V-8 motors and spacious interiors surrounded by chrome-plated bumpers, mirrors, and massive hood ornaments.
What the DDB creative team saw in the VW brand was an opportunity to do the unexpected and, in the spirit of a growing cultural movement, to essentially thumb their nose at the automotive establishment. “Think Small,” read one of their first and ultimately most famous headlines. The visual in the ad showed the VW Beetle in the distance, surrounded by space, a design concept so different from the conventional style of in-your-face advertising that it immediately caught the attention of consumers everywhere.
Think Small and the dozens of ads that ultimately followed over the next decade and half, helped build a brand that was refreshing candid, laughably impertinent and absolutely captivating. Sales of VWs soared. By 1972, over 15 million VW beetles had been sold, passing the Ford Model T as the most popular car model ever.
In a sense, VW’s marketing was one of the first “truth in advertising” campaigns. By being contrary to all the fluff and pizzazz of current autos and their marketing campaigns, it stood out. The ads virtually dared the reader to think differently about automobiles and appealed to their self-esteem by positioning the VW as a virtuous choice. Beetles were slower, but got great gas mileage, they were less flashy, but easy to repair, they were cheap, but highly reliable. Readers bought them by the millions and VW introduced numerous other models, some of which became icons in their own right, like the VW microbus, precursor to the modern mini-van, and the Karmann Ghia sports car, a poor man’s Porsche, if ever there was one.
Fast forward from the mid-Seventies to the late Eighties. Japanese imports have grabbed huge slices of market share in the American market. VW sales that were once in the millions in the U.S. have slipped below a mere 100,000. A ballyhooed assembly plant in New Stanton, PA has come and gone. VW is looking for a brand boost and introduces an odd new tagline: “Fahrvergnügen: It’s what makes a car a Volkswagen.” As one word brand concepts go, Fahrvergnügen bears several distinctions. It was highly memorable, if impossible to spell. It has been frequently parodied, which is somebody’s idea of flattery. But as a marketing effort it was a huge swing and a miss. VW sales remained sluggish in the U.S., though globally the company was faring much better.
Then, in 1995, VW left its longtime marketing ally and branding partner, DDB, and hired Arnold Worldwide out of Boston to rejuvenate the brand. Arnold’s research showed that their young, middle-class target audience enjoyed driving, including actually being the driver. As a concept, it really wasn’t that far from the idea of Fahrvergnügen. Except this campaign made sense to Americans. One of the first TV efforts showed two twenty-something guys cruising around town in a Golf, ultimately picking up a discarded easy chair from the curb, popping it in the back and soon after dropping it off on another curb when they realized it was emitting a strange odor. It was entirely without dialog and set to the tune of Da Da Da, by the band Trio. At the end of the spot, a young female voiceover intoned: “Introducing the German-engineered Volkswagen Golf. It fits your life. Or your complete lack thereof. On the road of life, there are passengers and there are drivers.” The spot concluded with the new tagline: “Volkswagen: Drivers Wanted.”
In contrast to Fahrvergnügen, the Drivers Wanted campaign was a grand slam. Sales started to grow, and the new Beetle was introduced in 1998. (My favorite headline from the new Beetle campaign: “Zero to 60? Yes.”) Sales jumped 175% from 1996 levels, peaking at 355,000 units in 2000. The new campaign captured much of what the original Think Small approach had invented. It was quirky and irreverent. It positioned the VW as a smart choice and driving it as not just about speed and power. It was not just car. It was a personal statement.
Life was good at VW HQ in Wolfsburg. But then something happened that is a lesson in branding to any marketer. Sales began to slide, down 30% over a period from 2001-2004. The problem was simple; VW had stopped making quality cars. Warranty claims went through the roof. Quality ratings went through the floor. The brand experience no longer delivered on the brand promise.
While eventually admitting that product quality was an issue, in 2005 VW fired Arnold and hired Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the ad firm that helped launch the successful Mini Cooper and creators of the fabulously creepy Burger King campaign. Among other ads, Crispin was responsible for the controversial “real life” car crash TV spots that seemed to show actual car crashes and the success of airbags in protecting their occupants. The ads highlighted both the 5-star safety ratings and low price of the new VW Golf, but were magnets for criticism as well. More recently, they introduced the Das Auto campaign that takes VW all the way back to its quirky roots and features a black VW Beetle serving as spokesman, complete with his own weird talk show.
With the current challenges faced by the auto industry, the jury is out on the current VW effort. In August, VW announced a review to replace their ad agency. But look for the next campaign to be a continuation of what is now an epic effort to steer a brand through a changing marketplace while staying true to a proven concept.
VW’s advertising has motored through 50 years of social, cultural and marketing change (remember that, in 1959, TV was “new media”). Through the peaks and valleys, VW remains a nameplate that inspires fierce loyalty, presents a memorably different point of view, and delivers (usually) a good value. Their advertising has more often than not been fresh and unexpected. They’ve sold a lot of cars and built an enduring brand. But what a long strange trip it’s been. For 50 years now, through thick and thin, one thing has never changed: VW has always been able to make us smile.