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China's Women to Watch

Volkswagen's Melissa Bell Believes an Ad Campaign Should Be Like Dating

Marketing Director Slowly Helps Reveal Brand's Personality to Build a Long-Term Relationship

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A marketing campaign should unfold like a series of dates, said Melissa Bell, marketing director for Volkswagen Group Import in China. A brand should reveal its personality bit by bit, impressing the consumer and making her smile.

Melissa Bell
Melissa Bell

"You don't give away everything in the first moment. We want to build a long-term relationship," she said.

Ms. Bell is pushing boundaries in an immature market where brand communication is often unimaginative and to-the-point. Under her leadership, Volkswagen has highlighted the extra space in station wagons using dead fish, and crafted a digital graphic novel about the Scirocco coupe aimed at the design-savvy target consumer. A short film about the Touareg SUV was shot by a Chinese director famous for his lush cinematography in the frontier region of Xinjiang.

"My role is really about questioning the status quo and getting people to question why we do things. And, quite often, I get the answer, 'Well, that 's always the way it's been done," Ms. Bell said.

"We know how challenging things can be in a developing market like China, but that does not deter her from setting high goals," said Dick van Motman, president and CEO of DDB, Greater China. "She's leading the quest of giving Volkswagen the same creative quality in China that is has globally."

VW is by far the largest automaker in China, selling twice as many cars as its closest competitor, GM. The company announced in June that it's focusing on China as it seeks to become the world's top automaker by 2018.

Ms. Bell says her creative inspiration for VW Import's 15 products always stems from each vehicle's unique benefits. Station wagons have more space, and the Variant team played off the fact that passengers taking public transportation in China "are squashed in like sardines," she said.

The resulting ad shows an office worker rubbing a dead fish over his body before his commute, earning himself lots of room as other bus passengers stand far away to escape the stink.

A native of Australia, Ms. Bell, 38, came to China in 2005 in search of something new. She's a veteran of both agencies and clients, having done stints at Wunderman and Publicis, as well as Volvo and Jaguar.

After seven years in China, she promises "something unexpected" when VW launches its latest Beetle model in China this fall.

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