Yet another agency review for Volkswagen. After DDB, Arnold & Crispin, where do they go?

August 19, 2009

VW advertising: Inspired vs. Inspired lunacy

Volkswagen is in review. Either the churlish magicians at Crispin Porter & Bogusky ran out of spells (doubtful) or VW’s brand managers ran out of patience (more likely). Here is a quote from their VP of marketing, Tim Ellis pulled from Adweek:

“The Volkswagen brand needs to inspire our base of enthusiasts as well as reach out and captivate those in mainstream America. Therefore, we are re-evaluating all areas of our business, and after careful considerations have decided to take the necessary steps to ensure we have the right agency partner in place.”

For their part, CP&B provided a polite good-bye, citing their policy not to defend in reviews. Bully for them.

Forgive me the following cliché’ but “Yada, yada, yada.”

This is not the first time a red-hot agency came, made its mark on VW, then left. We all know the history. Doyle Dane Bernbach changed advertising forever by calling the VW Bug a “Lemon” in an advert. Dozens more iconic print and TV ads followed. This was a big deal for both parties but mostly (and somewhat secretly) it was a big deal for the agency. When the buzz died so too did sales. And so began a rollercoaster ride for the automaker that has continued to this day, of dizzying highs and demoralizing lows.

VW has got to be the most underachieving car brand in the world. Always flirting with being great but never achieving it. VW is like someone’s troubled big sister: sexy, beautiful, well heeled, but she just can’t get her act together. Always in the conversation but never in the driveway. What’s her problem? She has everything going for her. Poor girl. What a shame.

You’ll notice I keep referring to Volkswagen as a “she.” That’s because it’s a female brand, unmistakably feminine. And that just might be the problem. VW is German. And Germany is masculine…very, very, very masculine. How does the brand reconcile the two? My opinion, it doesn’t. Hence the metaphor of one’s confused big sister. Can you say bi-curious?

VW has always adored creativity. Hence all those fun ads from DDB, Arnold and CP&B. But America has trepidations about this girly German. The ads draw us to her but then we, too, get confused. Guys won’t (can’t?) buy Jettas and Pissots and certainly not the Bug, with that silly flower holder by the dash. Das Auto looks like a lady! Clearly, not enough women buy VWs either. I think they’re just as puzzled by the brand.

Whichever agencies participate in the review better not get hung up on the brand’s notorious advertising past. They and Volkswagen would be better served delivering a message of stability and integrity. The hipster stuff is just making everybody nervous.

While you’re musing on the sexual orientation of Volkswagen, check out the fascinating anthem below. Somewhere inside it lurks both VW’s problem and solution.

Steff on Twitter


15 Responses to “Yet another agency review for Volkswagen. After DDB, Arnold & Crispin, where do they go?”

  1. Brook said

    Spot on. Guys WILL NOT buy a chick car! I used to watch the media girls roll out of the parking lot (at 5:01) in their Jettas, I would think to myself, that’s not a bad looking car. Of course I would never be caught in one. VW needs to deal with their masculinity. Until then it doesn’t matter who their agency is.

    • Brook said

      I’m responding to my own post because it makes no sense if people think I’m a girl. Which I’m not. That is all.

  2. Roland Hesz said

    I think this “girlie” image is a problem only in the US. In Europe VW is not a girlie car.
    Actually never thought of VW as a girlie car, given all the rally races and all the young guys street racing with their VW.

  3. Van Gould said

    This is a really interesting post. VW is such a confusing brand, but it’s quirkiness seems to attract a loyal audience. I know a lot of people who will only buy VWs. I found myself almost buying one after seeing CP+B’s “Un-pimp your auto” campaign. If they decide to target a more general audience, could they could lose their current one?

  4. SRP said

    That’s the paradox, Van Gould.
    VW is a good brand, maybe a very good brand.
    Yet, for all those exciting ads, they still struggle for an identity and, more importantly, sales.
    I think it’s the “girly German syndrome.

  5. I’m not convinced that Volkswagen is a girl car. But if they are, and if they’re well-positioned as such (again, these are just guesses) why would they not want to go with that. Women are over 50% of the population, got lots of money to spend and are savvy consumers, even if our industry may not always acknowledge that.

    My guess is that there are now other more creative and more hip imports on the market now, and VW can’t compete as well in mainstream areas against the likes of the Toyotas and the Hondas.

    Brands have to stand for something. I’m a firm believer that the full-throttle pursuit of the lowest common denominator is what killed GM.

    For the record I drive a Ford Focus hatchback which has yet to declare its sexual preference.

  6. Jason Fox said

    Being a gearhead and former VW, I’d argue that the VW brand in America isn’t necessarily girly, but that VW does indeed sell several models that qualify as such. The GTI (which I once owned)? Not girly. The old Cabriolet, current Jetta and Eos? Definitely girly. Passat? Family car for those who want an A6-lite.

    Of course, VW’s lack of focus in the U.S. market isn’t just a positioning problem. I know several people who were swayed by Arnold’s work to jump into the fold and regretted it because of quality issues. For some reason, VW’s sister company Audi doesn’t seem to share the same QC issue even though the cars share the same platforms. I have my own theories on that, but they’re not germane to this discussion.

    The “Driver’s Wanted” campaign came closest to giving VW a real position. Sort of a less-expensive BMW. Unfortunately, their actual product mix couldn’t live up to it.

  7. The history of VW is fascinating. It was an idea to raise money for the Nazi party as “The People’s Car”. People saved money into a fund that would be used to buy VWs. Instead, the money went to building the uber-evil Hitler clan.
    With that legacy, it makes Bernbach’s original campaign all the more breathtaking.
    Now for something lighter:

  8. SRP said

    Very interesting comments here, thank you.
    I’m not convinced VW is a “girly” car either.
    I’m thinking they’re gender-confused, which is part of the problem! FYI -I’m writing an interesting follow-up piece with a true story about these brands/agencies not many people know.

  9. jinushaun said

    Yeah, VW is a girl car company. Only men that buy VWs are typically GTI fanbois. Advertising can fix this perception problem.

    However, more importantly, VW is absolutely infamous for problems with build quality and reliability. Ask most VW owners and they will tell you to avoid the brand. I think that’s the real problem here. Because VW arguably make sims of the mist handsome cars on the road.

  10. Terry S said

    Great post!! I just have to copy it, I have written a blog about used cars, please come visit my site when u have time ^_^

  11. Hey nice post.
    About Volkswagen recalls, have you heard of the Volkswagen Phaeton? Did you realize it’s nothing more then a reskinned Bentley Continental GT? Sad, but true.
    The Volkswagen Phaeton was a unimaginable catastrophe in my opinion, the worst thing VW ever made!

    Its In: VW Phaeton is a total flop!

  12. Alan Scott said

    This article is so far off the mark. Actually VW is a cousin from the PORSHE/ Audi/Bentley/ Bugati/Lamborghini stable, so the technology and features, and thinking behind the design is superior to anything coming out of Detroit. It’s all about freedom on the road, something America thinks they have but barely know the meaning. Go eat some McDonalds now with all that tuff guy/ girlie nonsense.

    • SRP said

      Chill out, Dieter. “America thinks they know freedom on the road” has nothing to do with what I’ve written. And as far as the McDonald’s insult…Go put a tulip in your Bug’s bud vase.

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