The case of Volkswagen

Several weeks ago, I read this article in Advertising Age that had to do with what they called 'The Stunning Decline of Volkswagen in The U.S.'In the article, Volkswagen's first real wave of success was closely tied to the relationship the...

Several weeks ago, I read this article in Advertising Age that had to do with what they called ‘The Stunning Decline of Volkswagen in The U.S.’

In the article, Volkswagen’s first real wave of success was closely tied to the relationship the company had with ddb, Bill Bernbach in particular.

We all remember the advertising and the brand image that resulted from that particular relationship.

It was the first real advertising of my generation and I believed it truly influenced the way a great many of us approached the creative process once we got into the business.

Then there was the phenomenal success which ensued as a result of that advertising, galvanizing the belief that a truly creative approach with a fairly small budget could, in fact, work much harder than a mediocre ‘product publicity’ approach with a big media budget behind it.

This got me thinking about the connection that consumers make in their hearts to a brand.

Obviously, vw had done an excellent job of positioning itself in the hearts of consumers as something of an ‘underdog’ for the rightish, and an ‘alternative’ for the leftish, consumer. Something for everyone. Quite brilliant. And it worked like gangbusters.

But something happened to cause vw sales to plummet over the past 20 years to the point at which it is not even really a factor in the market anymore.

Notwithstanding the crushing impact the arrival of the Japanese imports had on sales, I have developed a theory, based on the notion that while people might not always tell you the truth about how they are feeling, they do have feelings about advertising, and it does affect their behavior towards a brand.

A few weeks after reading this article, I was watching television and I saw what I considered to be a truly awful piece of vw creative.

It is the spot in which a muscular gq model type walks out and starts painting this wall a flat beige, while a pompous announcer tells us that ‘in mankind’s care’ the world has been allowed to slop into some sort of virtual mediocrity.

Then, suddenly, out whips this sporty little vw something (I have no sense of what models vw makes anymore.)

There is a funky special effect to give the spot some production value, but, essentially, my feeling about vw has already turned sour.

Who the hell is Volkswagen to judge me and all my fellow humanoids? Who is Volkswagen to be accusing me of screwing up? A car company whose sales have fallen by about 95% over the past 20 years.

Now it is not just this spot. This spot is one of many in a long series of unfocussed creative product that has accompanied vw’s stunning decline.

Creative that might well be considered ‘award-winning’, even ‘leading edge,’ in some cases, but creative that, I would submit, leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths, because of its pomposity and arrogant tone.

Creative that has so radically departed from its original roots and undeniable humanity that it has to be alienating people left and right.

In short, I believe that vw has been turning people off with its advertising and slowly but steadily eroding its brand image to the point where people no longer know, appreciate or even care enough about it to put vw on their shopping list.

That is sad. Because it truly was an incredible idea that Bernbach came up with way back then.

Perhaps vw should haul out those old ads, even the great ones Gary Prouk did, in the early ’70s, and take a serious giant step backwards to reacquaint itself and the new generation of consumers with its roots.

It might find the key to turning its business around lies somewhere in that direction, as opposed to the one that now positions vw on dangerous ground.

Jim Murray is owner of Onwords & Upwords in Toronto.