Volkswagen and Crispin Under New Pressure With Upheaval in Germany

David Kiley

Last Spring I wrote a cover story for BusinessWeek on Crispin Porter +Bogusky's work to reignite America's love affair with Volkswagen. Just eight months later, so much has changed, I can now only hope that the agency gets the chance to see it's ideas through.

Volkswagen's top marketer Kerri Martin has left the company in the last week. And VW's U.S. chief Adrian Hallmark is saying that the brand needs a unifying tagline to replace Drivers Wanted. Meantime, the product plan Hallmark was counting on going forward is up for review, because VW's supervisory board chairman Ferdinand Piech ousted VW AG chief Bernd Pischetsrieder (after he committed the sin of presiding over a doubling of the stock price in the last year). And VW brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard was forced to leave as well.

It is at this point that I am waiting for Porky Pig Duck to appear to dish out his stuttering...."That's all folks...."

Volkswagen has proved to be an incredibly resilient brand. Consumers' willingnness to forgive it for quality transgressions frustrates its rivals terribly. What is getting wearisome to watch, though, is how the brand continues to be held captive to the political wrangling and power brokering in Germany. Consider that last week at the North American International Auto show, Porsche AG chairman Wendelin Wiedeking, who sits on VW's supervisory board, by far did the most talking about VW's future than either new VW chief Martn Winterkorn and Piech, though both men were milling around the show stand. Odd to say the least.

The big winner in all this is, of course, is Len Hunt, who left Volkswagen last year to take over as COO of Kia Motors America. Talk about getting out while the getting was good.

Crispin has done some excellent work for VW--notably the safety campaign for the Jetta that uses real-time crashes to tell the story of the car's side impact crash ratings, and the seies of Wolfgang and Helga "Unpimp Your Auto" ads.

Problematic for me, though, was the series of TV ads featuring rock music icon Slash hawking a free guitar with every VW purchase. My problem with it was the amount of money I saw spent on it and the media placement. I don't watch that much live TV, and I saw it way too many times. And in a tough sales year for the industry, I'm not sure it wasn't overplayed. Also...while it was an image thing, to make VW look cool, I don't really want a guitar with my new Jetta. I...um....don't play.

As for product: The GTI is terrific. The Rabbit (formerly the Golf) is also very good. And the new Jetta is as good as ever. The all new Passat has left a lot of auto writers a bit cold, and I agree. VW dialed in way too much Camry to that car, and not enough VW-dub.

And a small detail: new ads touting that Automobile Magazine named the GTI the Car of the Year need to be re-tagged so that they say, "Automobile Magazine's Car of the Year" I saw the ad last night, and for most people it comes across as "Automobile" Car of the Year, which is confusing.

The VW showroom still lacks a compact crossover (an amazing failure of Piech's planning), which won't arrive until 2008. And the minivan VW hopes conjures up some feeling for the old Microbus (a project engineered by Bernhard) won't arrive until this Fall.

If VW lacked a cohesive big idea in 2006, let's lay blame in the right place. Kerri Martin and Adrian Hallmark bought everything VW ran in the U.S. And Martin, a newcomer to VW, and Crispin basically had the grund shifting under the feet starting in October when Pischetsrieder was on his way to toast.

This is a terrific agency that's proven to have some great ideas. In other words VW....though you are acting crazy in every other way, don't get too crazy and go looking for another agency. Just figure out what you want to do for the next year, stick with it and keep your expectations reasonable given an incomplete showroom.

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