Volkswagen Tries To Juice Golf Sales With Rabbit Hop

Media attendees at The New York Auto Show were taken aback to see that Volkswagen will rename its Golf model in the U.S. Rabbit, hearkening back to the 1970s and early 80’s when the company marketed the Rabbit.

Some thought it was a cool idea. Other’s didn’t. “It’s a brain-dead idea,” said a disgusted Steve Wilhite, chief marketing officer at Nissan and former VW marketing honcho who helped guide the company to recovery in the late 1990s.

The idea came from Volkswagen’s new ad agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which has been driving a lot of conversation about its new work for the GTI. Those ads range from billboards that say, “Auf Wiedersehen Sucka,” to a TV ad in which a GTI owner keeps his wife from erranding with him because he doesn’t want her weight to throw off the balance of the ride.

The naysayers on Rabbit point to a car that had serious product quality problems and, for many, represents a dark chapter in VW’s American life. The flipside is that so many years have gone by that the agency and VW of America feel that a bit of nostalgia might juice sales and interest in a car, the Golf, that has been a non-factor in the U.S. The Golf is VW’s best selling car worldwide, but Americans long ago cooled to hatchbacks. Last year, VW sold just 9,140 Golfs last year, down from 13,402 in 2004. Golf didn’t get much ad support last year in a year in which VW launched new Passats and Jettas. And would-be Golf buyers are waiting for the new Golf, which has been on sale in Europe nearly two years, arriving in showrooms in a few months.

The decision to go back to the Rabbit name, which was created by Volkswagen’s storied ad agency of yore, Doyle, Dane Bernbach, shows the influence of VW marketing director Kerri Martin and the willingness of VW execs in North America and Germany to defy the wishes and past edicts of current supervisory chairman Ferdinand Piech. When Piech was chairman of VW, he constinued the policy ordered by previou chairman Carl Hahn that VW models have global names. The Jetta has been the exception. Elsewhere in the world, it is sold as the Bora, a name U.S. dealers vehemently rejected.

Current VW chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder and VW brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard signed off on the change. Dealers hated the Touareg name that Piech forced on VW’s first SUV in America. Maybe the way things are going, they’ll rename the Touareg…The Thing. The Thing was the name of the much loved rough and tumble SUV VW sold in the U.S. in the late 60s and early 70s, which was really a dressed up kubelwagen, the German Jeep made during World War Two, which was built on the chassis and drivetrain of the Beetle.

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