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Volkswagen Returns to Glory Road

'Force' Is Back With Carmaker Thanks to Big-Selling New Models and a Buzzworthy Darth Vader-Starring Super Bowl Spot

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Until recently, the force wasn't really with Volkswagen.

In 2009, sales were down 4% to 213,000 units -- the automaker's third year of decline -- making even more audacious a promise by former VW of America President Stefan Jacoby at the Detroit Auto Show the following January to double sales between 2012 and 2013.

Yet, on the strength of new models -- especially the revised 2011 Jetta and the just-released American-built Passat sedan -- Volkswagen of America is on track to make good on the over-the-top boast to surpass 400,000 unit sales by 2013. Some predict it will reach that goal even earlier.

2010 Passat
2010 Passat
For the first 10 months of this year, Volkswagen sales in the U.S. jumped 24%, according to Automotive News' DataCenter, to 380,115 units, putting it among the top 10 gainers for the period. For the month of October alone, VW posted the industry's highest sales growth in the U.S., up 40%.

Though some of that might be attributable to the fact that competing Japanese brands have suffered globally because of supply shortages and factory damage created by the tsunami and earthquake earlier this year, crippling production output, there's no doubt VW now has momentum.

And much of it came from Darth Vader ... which seems to be German for "creating brand awareness."

A vast media buzz was ignited by a now-classic Super Bowl spot that ran early in the year. "The Force" is about a little boy dressed as the "Star Wars" villain, his face hidden by a black mask, like the "real" Darth Vader. To date, the ad -- a charming tale of a lad trying to use his imaginary powers to conjure reaction from a washing machine, a sleeping dog and a 2012 VW Passat -- has been viewed more than 43 million times on YouTube, and generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in media value.

2012 Golf
2012 Golf
"VW more than anything wants to make a big brand statement," said Michael Sheldon, CEO of Deutsch, Los Angeles, who led the team that created the spot. "The reason people are buying the cars is because we're not selling. We're asking people to be cool and smart, and that 's very attractive."

The creative vaulted the spot to the top of Super Bowl commercial popularity charts, but the buy was really part of a larger strategy. The spot was originally cut to 60 seconds, but when it had to be cut in half to run in the Super Bowl they had a hard time capturing the full feeling in half the seconds. "Fortunately the marketing folks at VW had the idea to get the :60 out on the internet several days before Super Bowl Sunday, it took off beyond anyone's expectations, and the :60 is the version most people remember," Editor Jim Haygood told Creativity last June.

It had staying power beyond the game. "The Super Bowl laid the foundation; now they're getting additional impressions and conversation with the audience they are targeting," Andrew Latzman, senior VP of research at Kantar Video, told AdAge.com.

Deutsch has worked with VW marketing exec VP Tim Mahoney for two years and is creating another Super Bowl ad for VW for Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5. Deutsch is also formulating a campaign for the 2012 Beetle, emphasizing it as "a more masculine" car.

"The things that draw you into the ["Force'] ad have nothing to do with the vehicle per se," suggested Steve Witten, head of global automotive business development for JD Power & Associates. "It raises awareness of the brand, and draws attention to the dealerships."

According to Kantar, VW in the U.S. spent $431 million on advertising in 2010, up 17.2% from 2009.

This year VW may well realize its ambition in reaching for the stars. It has a new body-style Jetta sedan that 's built in Mexico for the North American market, which typically favors cars with trunks over cars with hatches, like the Golf. And the Passat, now into series production at the just-completed VW plant in Chattanooga (giving it bonus points for helping create U.S jobs), is aimed squarely at the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. VW has taken pains to cut prices (and some features); the car is several thousand dollars less expensive than the previous generation, German-built Passat.

The VW group is also planning major investments in China. It was among the first Western automakers to enter that market, and is planning to build new plants there and to double its capacity to 3 million cars annually.

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