VW Hopes Beetlemania Will Sell Cars

As part of its new sales push, VW will debut an ad campaign featuring a talking classic Beetle. It's clever but will it connect with drivers?

When the going gets tough for Volkswagen (VOWG), as it is now in the U.S. market, the German automaker has a record of reaching back into its own history and German-ness for inspiration and new advertisements to move people to reopen their minds—and wallets—to the brand.

And so VW this week is kicking off a new ad campaign with a new ad slogan, "Das Auto," (translation: the car) and lots of appearances by a talking, and pristinely restored, 1960s vintage Volkswagen Beetle acting as a campy talk-show host. Emphasizing Volkswagen's German roots, and even winking at the much-loved original Beetle is never a bad idea. And the unexpected spectacle of the talking Beetle will grab attention, at least for a while. But the TV and Internet ads featuring the talking car, created by Miami ad agency Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, run the risk of so trivializing Volkswagen's products at a time when recession-wary U.S. buyers more than ever are probably scrutinizing their car purchases for quality, reliability and value.

The campaign includes TV, print, Internet ads, and a place on vw.com where consumers can respond to survey questions that then become banner ads. But it's the TV ads that stand out as the most buzzworthy piece of the campaign. Max, the talking Beetle, voiced by actor Bronson Pinchot affecting an over-the-top German accent, interviews celebrities such as model Heidi Klum, TV actor David Hasselhoff, college basketball coach Bobby Knight, and Star Trek icon Leonard (Mr. Spock) Nimoy.

Mad Max

In the Klum ad, the 30-second interview exchange has Max telling the model there is more to her than superficial beauty. She quickly returns the compliment and talks about how "You guys (Volkswagen) put antilock brakes and traction control in all your cars." The Hasselhoff interview plays off the Baywatch star's fan base in Europe, to which he responds by talking about VW's popularity in Europe, China, and Brazil.

The recurring character of Max makes me think of the episodic quality of the Apple computer ads. In an age of ad-zapping via digital video recorder, I think episodic storytelling is a good idea, especially if the company is trying to get across a complex biography of brand history and current product attributes. Among the messages conveyed in the TV spots are that VW is very big elsewhere in the world, includes a lot of standard equipment in its cars, is readying clean-diesel cars for sale in all 50 states, and set a miles-per-gallon record with a concept car driven across Europe. I'm not sure how much consumers will care about all that, but it would be a tough bunch of information to convey without an ad format that can become familiar to viewers.

While there is an undeniable jolliness here in these ads, there is also a bit of a disconnect. I'm wondering if maybe the ad wouldn't work a little better if the agency had decided use a New Beetle, which actually has the modern technology and is sold now. Max is acting as a VW spokesman here, I know. But it's in visual discord with the dialogue. CP+B creative director on the campaign, Andrew Keller, says that was never a consideration. The choice of the original Beetle was made because of the universal love of the car, and its ability to convey VW's "brand DNA." Says Keller, "We are trying to build a coherent brand idea that will reach across the whole lineup of cars which is going to be growing a lot in the next few years."

A Whiff of Desperation

But there is a larger problem with these spots. The punchlines aren't that funny or clever. And the whole thing has a whiff of desperation about it that might go away as the campaign develops and gets fine-tuned. And I have grown weary of ads that try to make something clever out of retro stars such as Nimoy and Hasselhoff. I often wonder if they get chosen because they work cheap.

I think the choice of "Das Auto" is an interesting idea. The various pieces of the campaign also carry the message: It's What the People Want. In a print ad for the GTI performance hatchback, the headline reads, "The people want the world's fastest transmission." Max, the talk-show host, is pictured small in the ad, with a microphone in front of him, adding a message: With the world's fastest shifting transmission, you can save gas while having a gas.

On the brand's Web site, vw.com, there are messages delivered by Max, such as "The people want clean diesel cars in all 50 states." Then, visitors are directed to a page to answer survey questions about "what the people want." The questions include: Do you want less reality TV? Do you want less extravagant weddings? After answering yes or no, the results of the survey appear. This has the feeling of one of those facebook.com survey/games that friends send one another. The survey questions and results then become banner ads on the Web. I found them while reading the Op-Ed section of The New York Times online. Social networkers can write their own question on vw.com, embed the question from the site on their Facebook page, for example, or blog, and when their friends vote, the results go back to vw.com. That's a nice feature.

Pushing German Tin

A core strength of Volkswagen products is the uniqueness of how German-engineered cars drive and perform relative to comparably priced U.S. and Asian vehicles. But while Volkswagen management has long been conflicted about how much to push its German character, agency CP+B has not been bashful about emphasizing VW's German roots in campy ways. In 2006, the agency kicked off a series of TV ads for the GTI featuring an effete German engineer named Wolfgang and a dominatrix named Helga in vignettes about the GTI's speed and performance.

Bold strokes in VW's marketing have been a hallmark of CP+B. It pushed for the renaming of the Golf to "Rabbit," the name VW used in the 1970s and early '80s for its hatchback. Sales have spiked, and the decision looks as if it has been a winner. It also created a series of jarring ads to trumpet VW's crash-safety ratings, in which people were in real-time crashes and emerged unhurt.

The TV ads will run into May, and then give way to product-specific ads. VW launches the Tiguan subcompact SUV in May. It's the first crossover utility vehicle VW has launched in the U.S., and a centerpiece to VW's strategy of reversing a sales slide in the U.S. that is costing the German company around $1 billion a year in losses. Later this year, it will launch the TDI Jetta, the least expensive clean diesel vehicle on the market, and a car that will get in excess of 40 mpg with minimal tailpipe emissions. That will be a compelling green message for VW that may do more to spotlight the brand than a talking car.

Back to the Beetle

Volkswagen sales were down 6% in the first three months of this year, vs. last year, after falling 5% in 2007 from 2006. Volkswagen of America has overhauled its senior management in recent months, naming German executive Stefan Jacoby to run the U.S. operations of both VW and Audi, and Tim Ellis, formerly Volvo's global marketing chief, to run VW's U.S. marketing. The company later this year will relocate from its Michigan headquarters to new digs in Virginia's Fairfax County. The company says the move is being done to reinvigorate the organization with new blood in a market that is more hospitable to import cars than Detroit.

Despite the fact the original VW Beetle hasn't been sold in the U.S. since 1979, it remains the brand's most recognizable face. In the mid-1990s when VW sales fell so low that German management considered folding its operation in the U.S., it reignited interest in the brand and its products by introducing a concept for the New Beetle at the 1994 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The buzz drew attention to VW's new models beginning in 1995 when sales were under 100,000. Sales climbed to a peak of 356,000 in 2001. Last year, sales were 231,000.

VW has an audacious plan to reach 800,000 sales a year by 2018. Most analysts view that number more as a dream than a target. To come even close, VW is adding new products and planning to build a factory in the U.S. that will produce up to 250,000 vehicles. VW is being hammered, especially on profits per vehicle, because of the weak U.S. dollar and the European content of most of its cars.

How much a winning advertising campaign can help is hard to predict, as is the public's response to Max, the talking Beetle. But whenever VW has embraced the Beetle in the past, it has worked out pretty well.

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