The Long & Winding Road: Volkswagen

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Volkswagen has long been the advertising industry's darling around the world, and in many ways created modern advertising as we know it with Doyle Dane Bernbach's 1960s Beetle campaign. Today, it is notable in the U.S. for the consistency of its seven-year-old "Drivers Wanted" campaign, from Arnold in Boston - advertising that has recently kicked up another gear in ambition and adventure with the three New Beetle spots "Chain Reaction," "Bubble" and "Squares."

When "Drivers Wanted" launched in 1995, although it was very Volkswagen, and in keeping with the brand's advertising in other countries, its entirely emotional appeal was very unusual for the then U.S. market. "I do believe we have changed the whole category in America," says Arnold ECD, Ron Lawner. "I was amazed by the amount of distance we were able to open up from day one. We didn't know the rules. We didn't know that you were not supposed to be seen enjoying the driving experience. Didn't know we were supposed to try to appeal to everyone. Didn't know we couldn't have in-jokes with our customers."

This, he says, is the key to VW's advertising. It doesn't try to appeal to all people. He repeatedly uses the word "fearless" to describe VW. "They believe in being honest and treating consumers with respect. VW is a mindset," Lawner contends. "Our audience knows who they are. We do, too. It's tough for a client. They usually want to reach as many people as possible. Hopefully, 'Drivers wanted' is invitational. We created a club for people who do not normally want to join a club. Basically it's 'Do you get it?' 'Do you like it?' "

Lawner never tests Volkswagen ads, which is not to say that VW doesn't use research. Arnold as an agency tries not to test any of its clients' advertising. He says he has never got a great ad through testing; the edges are "always rounded off. You need to find a real partner who you trust, and they trust us," he says of VW. "They know we know the brand. You have to invest in a strong brand. Then you have freedom. We are all over the place executionally, but it is all VW. There isn't one look or style, but we're talking to people we know, and anyone else who is attracted."

The new work, particularly "Squares," does go into an artsy territory that is fresh for VW, however - at least for the U.S. market. To be fair, it does do artsier work in several other countries. Can VW be too cool? "We have to have a sense of humor," says Lawner. "We cannot take ourselves too seriously. 'Squares' is very strategic. How much simpler and more elegant can you get? We have built the brand. Now, we can do squares and tackling shopping trolleys.

"You know, in the end these are German cars, not Japanese cars," Lawner concludes. "They drive differently. They're European. The cars and the people who will drive them are a little left of center. We celebrate that." (SH)

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