The rounded shape of the Volkswagen Beetle might remind some of a bubble, but in many ways it's a halo.
"More than any other car in our portfolio, it disproportionately drives brand perception," Tim Ellis, VP-marketing for Volkswagen of North America, said in an interview today following the unveiling of the "New Beetle" in New York. "People tend to see the health of Volkswagen based on the Beetle."
So it's all the more important for Volkwagen, which has promised to double its sales by 2013, to make a go of the new 2012 Beetle. "The Beetle will be one of the core volume models, but more than anything it will help drive interest and enthusiasm for the brand," said Mr. Ellis. "All the major spikes in the business for the brand in this country have been around Beetle introductions." He said this year, following the teaser ad it ran on the Super Bowl, "we saw tens of thousands of hand raisers" who expressed interest in buying the car.
A year after the Beetle was reintroduced in 1998, sales peaked at 83,434 units, according to Automotive News, but unit sales declined every year except 2003 (56,971 units), when the convertible was launched and again last year when sales rose 17% but only to 16,537 units, Automotive News figures show.
This time around, the pitch will be toward making the car appeal more to men and younger buyers with a sportier design, more emphasis on performance, a larger body size and bells and whistles such as a state-of-the-art Fender sound system. Currently, about 60% of Beetle buyers are female and the average buyer age is mid-30s to mid-40s. The key will be to be more "gender neutral," Mr. Ellis said. "The opportunity is to broaden, not switch targets."
He declined specifics on just how, but said to expect big-event strategies in line with what the automaker has done so far this year with an "Oprah" appearance and Super Bowl spot some eight months before the car is launched in fall. "We aren't looking for a continuity plan, we are looking at a high-impact plan. You simply don't need as many investment dollars for a car like this, you simply need to choose the right media assets."
Among those "right" assets will be social media, digital, "unique" outdoor placements, and high-impact programs including a repeat performance on "Oprah" and a large product placement in the fall. "When we go TV programming, we will go big," said Mr. Ellis, in terms of platform if not spending. According to Kantar, while VW spent $263 million in measured media last year across all its brands, VW received virtually none of those dollars.
"You'll see a lot of sports, a lot of news," he said, along with more youth-oriented tie-ins with places such as MTV. In fact to launch the car, VW staged three events on the same day -- Shanghai, Berlin and New York -- and is streaming a Black Eyed Peas concert tonight in conjunction with MTV World Stage.
The ad theme, "21st Century Beetle," is "the glue," he said, that will hold together the global-launch elements, which will be finessed in different markets around the world, but all of them will emphasize the car's performance and iconic image.
Deutsch, Los Angeles, is handling creative for the U.S. launch, which will be tricky as it comes near the introduction of the new Passat. In fact, Mr. Ellis said that the Passat ad, almost universally cited as the No. 1 spot in the Bowl, stole a little of the thunder from the company's teaser spot which showed a real beetle scrabbling through the forest before morphing into a line drawing of the car silhouette.
But one thing was clear: In the launch, the Beetle won't get lost. "The only way to screw up the launch of this car is to try too hard," Mr. Ellis said. "Let the car speak for itself."
As tempting as it is to make the marketing about performance, "love and community play a big role as well," he noted. "Love for this car goes back decades. ... Everyone in this country has a story about a Beetle."