Volkswagen has been looking for a new bolt of energy for its faltering brand, and it may finally be on to something with its first marketing campaign from its new ad agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Four new TV ads for its just-released GTI performance car that broke this week during the Winter Olympics are the most energized and brand-correct ads to come from VW in five years -- back when the German auto maker was setting an ad standard for companies in and out of the automotive category.
The ads' theme is "Make Friends With Your Fast," a reference to the "thing" inside drivers that makes them like to go fast and drive high-performance cars. In the ads, as well as the broader marketing campaign, the "fast" is embodied in a strange little character that looks like a cross between Darth Vader and the Tasmanian Devil. It rides with the drivers of the car, and is heard speaking as if it's the driver's conscience.
FAST COMPANY. It's not as tortured a creative vehicle as it sounds. Though Volkswagen's decade-old "Drivers Wanted" theme doesn't appear, VW and the ad agency say not to assume that the slogan is going to be replaced. The "Make Friends..." line is unique to the GTI launch.
In one ad, a guy in his early 20s is seen clearly enjoying his drive. The windows are down, the engine is roaring and his girlfriend's hair is blowing all over. She asks if he can put the windows up. The "Fast" is heard to say, "My Fast likes to drive with the windows down." The wind-blown girl is asking why they always have to ride with the windows down. "The 'Fast' implores, "Don't. Don't." The driver, cast well as a slightly pimply geek, probably into Asian indie music, cuts her off: "Sweetie, it's really hard to enjoy the sound of the engine with all that yackin'."
All four of the ads can be viewed at myfastgti.com, which is not a site created by Volkswagen. It's a site put up by a GTI enthusiast who posted the ads from someone who recorded them via TiVo (TIVO) during the Olympic broadcast. Says CP+B creative chief Alex Bogusky: "It's embarrassing. It takes us weeks to get a Web site up and he got his up in three days." VW's featured site for the GTI is projectfast.com
DRIVING URGE. These ads remind me a little of beer commercials. You know, like Budweiser or Bud Lite ads in which the young guy or guys are humorously depicted as being way more into their beer than their wives or girlfriends. There is another GTI spot in which a guy goes off on an errand, leaving his girlfriend behind a locked passenger door because he doesn't want her extra weight (she's not overweight) dragging down his driving experience.
VW's "Fast" character appears in ads as the driver's inner voice
Perhaps its no coincidence that just as this ad agency was gearing up for VW, it was tapped by Miller Brewing to be the new agency on its Lite brand. But the ads are funny, and they work for the brand. Owning a VW is about liking to drive. "On the road of life, there are passengers and drivers," goes the VW positioning. "Drivers wanted."
I actually hope that VW keeps the "Drivers wanted" slogan. Changing slogans is lazy advertising. Crispin is on the right track, freshening and reviving VW with some smart, funny ads that feel right.
FAST WOMAN. Coming soon: A series of ads themed, "Pre-Tuned in Deutschland." The ads are a nod to Volkswagen's German engineering heritage and the idea that the auto maker's engineers are better at tuning cars for performance than the aftermarket shops that bolt on turbo chargers, spoilers, dual coffee-can exhaust pipes and spinning wheel covers.
The star of these ads is a white-leather clad dominatrix-type German blonde named Helga who rides along with GTI drivers. On the Volkswagen Web site, vw.com, visitors who configure their own GTI for equipment and features can go for a virtual ride with Helga.
The launch of the GTI and a compelling ad campaign come in the nick of time for VW. It is losing money in the U.S. by the trunkload because of lagging sales and a low U.S. dollar that make profitability a big challenge for the company (see BW Online, 2/10/06, "Can VW End Its Skid?").
On top of that, the launches last year of the redesigned Passat and Jetta, VW's highest volume cars, were greeted with yawns. The designs were seen as too conservative, and the advertising campaigns for them lacked any of the energy that so effectively propelled VW's comeback from 1995 to 2002. VW sales dropped 7.6%, to 311,000 vehicles, despite the launch of its two most important cars. VW is down more than 100,000 sales a year since 2001.
"LOVE AFFAIR." VW was helped immeasurably in 1998 with the launch of the New Beetle and all the accompanying publicity that car received. Even if people didn't go to the dealership to buy one, they wanted to see the car.
The New Beetle sold a lot of Jettas and Passats. With the New Beetle now all too familiar, VW is hoping that the GTI, along with getting its advertising back on track, will do the same. "We are trying to reignite the love affair with the brand," says Bogusky.
During the last four years, VW lost its bearings when it came to advertising and innovative products. As it launched a $40,000-plus SUV, the Touareg, and a $70,000-plus luxury sedan, the Phaeton, German executives directed that ads had to be more serious and informational in order to get into the heads of the fat-wallet brigade it was after. Bogusky and VW ad chief Kerri Martin say the brand became less clear even to VW enthusiasts.
MAKING SALES -- AND HISTORY "You don't buy a house unless you understand the neighborhood it's in," says Bogusky. Martin ran marketing at MINI USA until last 2004, when she was recruited by VW. In September, 2004, she convinced CP+B to resign the MINI account to take on VW.
It's a tough order to inject momentum into VW again, and a daunting ad challenge. The VW brand has been a lightning rod for what many believe were two of the best advertising eras of the last fifty years. In the 1960s, ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach created advertising for Volkswagen that is still talked about as the best of the 20th century.
A print ad for a VW Beetle headlined "Think Small," and another headlined "Lemon" are taught as case studies in universities. The TV ad featuring a snowplow driver who drives his Beetle to his snowplow is a case-study in advertising story-telling.
RIPPLE EFFECT? In the late 1990s, Arnold Communication, Boston, made its reputation on its Volkswagen work. One TV ad featuring two college-aged young men driving around town to the indie-rock cult song, "Da-da-da" by German techno band Trio, is hailed nine years after it ran as one of the most memorable ads of the 1990s. Arnold's body of work for VW was generally thought of as the best in the ad industry. That was before VW's aspirations of luxury car sales sucked all the fun out of the brand.
Volkswagen has been running the GTI TV ads as the official sponsor of the HDTV broadcast of the Olympics. The company isn't disclosing how much it's spending on the sponsorship and the ad time, but it far outweighs the actual sales potential of the GTI.
That's O.K., though. As Bogusky says, "When ads for one product resonate, it lifts all vehicles." He's right. Just look at how New Beetle saved VW in the U.S. I'm not sure GTI has the heft to do that, but these ads are a good start.