VW hits the slopes for Quebec

When you're blessed with a tag line as omnipotent as Volkswagen's 'Drivers Wanted,' you stick with it. After all, it's the most recognized signature among car makers, and it's credited with helping to revive VW's viability in North America after near extinction.
So for the Quebec market, you simply translate that all-powerful tag line into French, right?

When you’re blessed with a tag line as omnipotent as Volkswagen’s ‘Drivers Wanted,’ you stick with it. After all, it’s the most recognized signature among car makers, and it’s credited with helping to revive VW’s viability in North America after near extinction.

So for the Quebec market, you simply translate that all-powerful tag line into French, right?

Wrong, says Karen Marderosian, director of marketing at VW’s North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich. ‘We know that Quebec consumers are significantly different from those in the rest of the continent.’

That’s why, despite throwing its overall North American account to Boston-headquartered Arnold Communications, Marderosian says VW relies on a much smaller agency – Montreal’s Palm Publicité Marketing – ‘for consumer insights and innovative ways of delivering our overall brand personality and brand message in Quebec.’

Speaking to consumers in French is only part of the strategy for this distinct market, says Patrice Attanasio, director of public relations and sponsorships at Palm, which won the VW account in 1994 (the same year, incidentally, that Arnold succeeded DDB as VW’s AOR).

‘Quebec has always had a love story with Volkswagen because it’s a European brand and we like to think of ourselves as European,’ Attanasio explains.

That’s why Quebecers buy more manual transmission automobiles than other North American consumers and consistently favour smaller cars such as Jetta and Golf, which are the most popular models among Quebec’s VW drivers.

So what is VW’s overall tag line in la belle province? It’s not ‘Drivers Wanted,’ which literally loses something in translation thanks to nuances inherent in the English word ‘driver’ that are absent in French.

Instead, the tag line for Quebec is the resonant and challenging question, ‘Êtes-vous fait pour Volkswagen?’ In English, Attanasio says this translates as ‘Are you meant for a Volkswagen lifestyle?’

Which lifestyle is connoted? Sporty in particular and active in general, explains Réné Leclerc, Palm’s EVP in charge of the VW account.

‘When Volkswagen came to us, they had already chosen cycling and skiing as their sporting affinities,’ he explains. It was Palm’s initiative to serve the latter affinity by exploiting Quebec’s top winter-time asset: its three dozen-plus ski resorts. Three of them – Mont-Tremblant, Mont-Sainte-Anne and Stoneham – now have strategic partnerships with VW.

It was this niche association that led to a Christmas-season campaign in 2000 that Leclerc says was so successful it zoomed awareness of Volkswagen’s connection with skiing from third place to first place, according to a survey done by the Canadian Ski Association.

Successful enough for an encore? ‘We don’t want to tip off our competitors in advance,’ says Leclerc. ‘But it did have very encouraging results, so you could say we’re thinking about doing it again.’

The challenge

The campaign, which was dubbed for its tag line, ‘Joyeux Ski!’ (Merry Skiing), was the solution to a problem posed by the Quebec Volkswagen Dealers Association, with which Palm works as closely as it does with VW’s top brass.

‘The context was that, while other automobile manufacturers would be offering the usual year-end rebates, like zero down, zero percent interest, zero this, zero that, the Quebec dealers did not want to do so,’ Leclerc recalls.

The strategy

So, in lieu of conventional rebates, Palm made a deal with the Quebec Ski Areas Association. It allowed dealers to offer customers, who either bought or leased any new VW model, a $500 credit toward ski fees at any of the province’s resorts. Leclerc says ‘it worked like a prepaid phone card, with values deducted each time the card was used.’

‘The Joyeux Ski! campaign was a really good fit with the active lifestyle of Volkswagen customers,’ adds Attanasio, ‘because even though not all of them ski, most are physically active in one way or another. And if they didn’t wish to use the credit themselves, they were free to pass it on to a family member or friend.’

Simultaneously, Palm launched ‘La tournée des sommets’ (Tour of the Summits), a series of 20 weekend events staged at various ski resorts throughout the province. These included parties participated in and promoted by major radio stations as well as free parking for VW owners and test drives of new models.

The execution

The highlight of the creative for the Joyeux Ski! campaign was a madcap TV spot featuring a trio of white-clad, blue-helmeted skiers on a snowy slope. With acrobatic grace, they tap dance to the ‘fa la la la la’ part of the venerable ‘Deck the Halls’ Christmas carol. Then, in an aerial shot, they flip around to form the VW logo with their skis.

This image was also used on the festively coloured $500 credit certificates along with the headline ‘Skiez gratuitement tout l’hiver’ (Ski free all winter).

Meanwhile, outdoor advertising for La tournée des sommets appeared near 40 ski resorts throughout Quebec with radio commercials supporting the events. These billboards featured a gondola gliding up a mountain with the VW tag line plastered on its front.

The results

As noted above, the Joyeux Ski! campaign appreciably boosted awareness of VW’s involvement with skiing. As for whether it helped propel sales upward as well, Marderosian declined to cite actual sales results for competitive reasons.

‘Yes, it drove sales and it helped drive interest in the dealerships,’ she says. ‘But it also helped to further our involvement with skiing and active lifestyles in Quebec. So we were very pleased because Palm designed a promotion that brought value to the brand but had a retail element that also tied in with some of our strategic partnerships. It was a comprehensive and integrated approach that really delivered against various objectives at various levels.’

Attanasio also stops short of measuring the success of the campaign in terms of the sales it may have prompted. But he does say that ‘year after year, about 12,000 new Volkswagens were sold annually in Quebec and that’s now up to about 16,000.’

The Joyeux Ski! campaign garnered a gold award in the automotive category at this year’s Canadian Promo Awards and was among four finalists for best art direction in the recent international Globe Awards conferred by the Association of Promotion Marketing Agencies.