Steve Wilhite, a central figure in the rebound of Volkswagen of America, is expected to take a top marketing post at Apple Computer.
The move will shift Mr. Wilhite to a new industry--but also to a company with remarkable parallels to Volkswagen.
Mr. Wilhite is set to take the vacant post of VP-marketing, according to an executive familiar with his plans. Apple's interim CEO Steven Jobs has overseen marketing since soon after he regained control of the company in mid-1997.
9-YEAR RUN AT VW
Mr. Wilhite left Jan. 1 as Volkswagen of America's core process leader-sales and marketing and de facto marketing chief. That ended a nine-year run in which he helped revive a fallen marque. He was part of the team that tapped Arnold Communications, Boston, as its agency in 1995 and launched the new Beetle in 1998, culminating in a turnaround that made VW Advertising Age's 1998 Marketer of the Year.
In early February, Mr. Wilhite accepted a post as VP-sales and marketing at Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycle Manufacturing Co., a fledgling marketer of American cruiser cycles.
The reasons behind Mr. Wilhite's sudden move from cycles to Macs weren't clear. He couldn't be reached at press time. The brothers who run Excelsior, Dan and Dave Hanlon, also were unavailable.
An Apple spokeswoman, asked whether the VP-marketing position had been filled, said it had not, adding, "At this time, any names out there would be speculation."
She said Apple probably will combine the open position with another post vacated in February when Senior Director of Worldwide Marketing Communications Allen Olivo departed to become VP-marketing at Amazon.com.
Mr. Wilhite has strong ties to California. When departing VW, he said he wanted "to bring a little balance back into my life" and indicated he planned to relocate to his home town of San Diego. His son is a student at the University of California at Berkeley, close to Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters.
The parallels between VW and Apple are strong. Both were fallen icons early this decade. And both rebounded with strong advertising and slick transformations of old products--VW's Golf, Apple's Macintosh--into new products that shook up the market--the new Beetle, iMac.
VW's agency, Arnold, was a finalist in the 1997 Apple agency review before Mr. Jobs opted to go back to his old agency, TBWA/
Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif.
Mr. Wilhite last year explained that VW's ad theme--"Drivers wanted"--isn't about driving a car but "about being a participant in life." VW drivers "tend to be not awfully concerned about what other people think," he said.
The same could be said of Apple's "Think different," a brand statement appealing to independent-minded computer users who choose Mac over the default choice, Microsoft Corp.'s Windows-based PCs.
Just how Messrs. Jobs and Wilhite will split marketing responsibilities remains to be seen.
Given Mr. Jobs' "very hands-on" approach, one close observer said, "if someone wants to come in and paint their name all over the place, it ain't going to happen."
Copyright April 1999, Crain Communications Inc.