Volkswagen "Think Small" Beetle ad. VW

The quality of advertising is important for any company. How well a brand stands out and the catchiness of the idea or slogan is critical. For car companies, which have some of the biggest budgets among all advertisers, this amounts to hundreds of millions a year -- and in a few cases, more than a billion dollars at stake.

For Volkswagen, which has an annual ad budget of around $250 million to $300 million (by comparison, about what Ford spends on national advertising for just its F-Series pickup truck) the pressure to perform is greater than most. As new VW ad agency Deutsch prepares to launch an ad campaign for the 2011 Jetta, it finds itself taking the baton not just from VW's old agency, but from a history of advertising that many consider the best of all time.

The Beetle Era

When Advertising Age selected the Top 100 Ad Campaigns of the Twentieth Century in 2000, the magazine selected the "Think Small" print ad for the Beetle created by Doyle, Dane Bernbach.

The most striking thing about the ad is how small the car is on the page. Until DDB started working on VW, the norm of the day was to depict cars in unrealistic looking illustrations, rather than photography. The illustrations were often accented with sunbursts. The people in the ads, if there were people, were often out of proportion to the car, making the cars look bigger than they really were.

The second breakthrough in this ad is the use of the copy to tell a story about the product and brand, and the use of humor.

This approach of the simple headline, in black lettering, followed by copy and a simple image of the vehicle would be used over and over again.

In another famous VW ad, the headline simply read "Lemon." The copy that followed tells the story of how even small flaws that show up in the otherwise perfectly fine looking car once it exits the assembly line will keep it from being shipped and sold. The ads used irony. They could be sardonic and humorous.

Most important was that over time the ads all hung together, weaving a story over the course of a decade, in a single brand strategy that encompassed all of the VW models. Volkswagens were for smart, educated, hip people. It was cool to own one even if your income allowed you to buy a bigger, more chrome-laden car. The advertising helped make VW a brand for the hippie, the college professor, the Madison Avenue executive, the engineer and the entrepreneur.

The wit that showed up in VW's print ads migrated to TV. Scholars and advertising executives often talk about a TV ad entitled "Snowplow" for perfect "story telling." The ad simply follows a guy, a snowplow driver, out of his house and into his Beetle. To make the point about how well the car, with its engine mounted in the rear, handles the snow, the ad simply shows that a Beetle is what the snowplow driver drives to his snowplow.

As Volkswagen gradually slid in the 1970s, as the Beetle and Microbus were giving way to the less successful Rabbit hatchbacks and Quantum sedans, the advertising wasn't keeping up. The original creative geniuses were no longer on the business. The cars got pricier and more complex. Quality fell. VW even resorted to recreating the exact ads it had done for the Beetle for the Rabbit, copy and paste.

But the work done by VW and DDB from 1960 to about 1974 is still studied today by business schools and young advertising writers.

The Resurgence

It wasn't until 1995, when VW hired a new ad agency, Boston-based Arnold Fortuna Lawner & Cabot, that it recaptured its ad mojo. Pumped up by the introduction of the Concept One car (which would become the New Beetle) at the Detroit Auto Show the year before, Arnold had nailed a positioning for VW that seemed a perfect bridge to a new era: "On The Road of Life there are passengers and there are drivers. Drivers Wanted." Indeed, "Drivers Wanted" became the new slogan and positioning that would support the New Beetle when it launched, but also lift the Jetta, Golf and Passat. The whole campaign, routinely praised in Advertising Age and Adweek, was a major factor in VW's surge back to financial health between 1996 and 2004.

Two ads from this era still stand out as iconic and memorable, and join DDB's work in the annals of effective advertising. One, called "Pink Moon," featured music by Nick Drake and depicted four young friends driving to a party on a starry night in a VW Cabrio. The group arrives at the party, looks at one another, realizes they will enjoy the ride in the car more than the party and they keep going. Another ad, called "Sunday Afternoon," features two young drivers in a VW Golf, driving around town to the music of "Da Da Da" by the band Trio.

"Pink Moon" is the favorite ad of the time by then VW marketing chief Steve Wilhite, who went on to lead marketing at Apple, Nissan and Hyundai. "That ad perfectly captured the values and attitude of the brand, sold the entire brand through a single car, and brilliantly connected with people from all walks of life. It is timeless," says Wilhite, who is no fan of the "Das Auto" ad campaign VW is running today.

Today's Challenges

That slogan is being used globally by VW. It translates to "The Car." Each market in the world is allowed to interpret the slogan, but must use it. VW, in this global age of the Internet, wants a single message just as it wants global names for its vehicles.

Deutsch launched its first campaign for VW earlier this year with one deviation from the global slogan edict. Deutsch CEO Mike Sheldon says the agency felt a need to start explaining what Das Auto means, even though the previous ad agency had been creating ads around it for over a year. The Deutsch ads close with "That's Das Auto."

The campaign that Deutsch created played on the kids' game that dates back to the Beetle days called "Punch Buggy." Two kids on a car trip would sock each other in the arm whenever they spotted a VW Bug. The trick was to spot the car before your friend did. Deutsch updated the idea to "Punch Dub," and created ads that showed multiple VW models, with adults and even celebrities socking each other whenever they spot any VW -- a Passat, a Routan minivan, a Golf, a CC. The strategy was meant to address the fact that many VW models are relatively unknown.

Eric Hirshberg, the co-CEO and chief creative officer at Deutsch who was key to winning the business late last year has recently announced he is leaving the agency. In an interview with VW's owner magazine, Das Auto, Hirshberg said the key is to tap into the things about the VW brand that can get two owners who don't know each other talking. "You put two people together who have never met before, but have owned Volkswagen models and they'll have a lot of cultural touchstones in common -- they'll likely have TV shows in common, music and similar outlook on life. It's more of a mindset, and that's what we we're trying to bring to the table."

VW marketing chief Tim Ellis is keeping the ads associated with the launch of the new Jetta behind the curtain until the Fall. He does say that "Punch Dub" is going to fade away, but perhaps come back now and again as a reminder to people and to have some fun.

Ellis says that VW has to get back to "telling a coherent story about our brand and these products." Not surprisingly, Ellis points to the ad work done in the 1960s and late 1990s as the standard.

Former ad agency Crispin, Porter + Bogusky created memorable ads. One series of ads for the GTI featured a German dominatrix named Helga. Another series of ads touting VW''s safety ratings depicted real-time crash footage.

The problem, says Ellis, is that while those ads got noticed, "they didn't add up to a single story line for people ... they were a bit all over the place."

Both VW and Deutsch will have a familiar boost in late 2011 to perhaps turbocharge Volkswagen's resurgence. The company will launch a new New Beetle. It will return with its familiar shape, but, sources say, more muscular lines that are meant to make it potentially more attractive to male buyers. It is hard to predict how much real anticipation there will be for the car. When the last one debuted in 1998, there had been a hiatus of almost 20 years since the last Beetle. The New Beetle became ubiquitous and grew more than a bit tired after an 11 year run, so the impact on the brand and interest in VW is likely to be less than it was in the late 1990s.

The plan going forward for VW is to make vehicles that are right-sized and right priced. But the danger is that the unique things that make VW's appealing to their current fans will get lost.

"We are aware of that challenge," says VW of America chief operating officer Mark Barnes. "We believe we have the products right, striking that balance between Volkswagen-ness and the unique needs of the U.S. market." Barnes quickly adds, "But we also know that the advertising we do has to be very special... not only is the bar for capturing people's attention these days set very high, but the bar for Volkswagen has been set very high by the people who have had our jobs in the past."

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