Sales Drivers Wanted: VW Takes Marketing U-Turn

Seeks Return to 'Drivers Wanted'-like Umbrella Theme in Its Advertising

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DETROIT ( -- Great buzz isn't enough -- just ask Volkswagen. Recognizing that its envelope-pushing marketing has done wonders to boost chatter but
Unhappy with the sale results of its 'Get to Know Your Fast' and 'Safety Happens' campaigns, Volkswagen is going back to the drawing board for a new marketing strategy. | ALSO: Vote and comment on this issue -- click 'Weekly Online Poll' in right rail.

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little to boost sales, Volkswagen of America is taking a U-turn. It's jettisoned Director-Brand Innovation Kerri Martin, who rattled its image with campaigns such as "Get to Know Your Fast" and "Unpimp Mein Ride," and is seeking a return to an umbrella theme like its abandoned but much-loved "Drivers Wanted."

Crispin Porter
The talk now isn't about VW's creative but rather whether the shop that generated it, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, can hold on to the $190 million account.

Adrian Hallmark, exec VP of the VW brand, said the jarring "Safety Happens" car-crash ads did generate showroom traffic and increase buyer consideration in 2006. And 2005's big U.S. loss was reduced significantly in 2006, with revenue growing 5%. But that's not enough for VW, which projects it won't break even until 2009.

Last year's ads were "so disparate," said Mr. Hallmark, a Brit who joined VW in fall 2005 from sibling Bentley Motors in the U.K. "Where is the red line through the middle of all our products with a unifying theory about VW?"

Disappointing sales
The automaker sold 235,140 units in the U.S. last year, up 5% from 2005. A spokesman said that was at the lower end of its target range of 5% to 10% -- which might beg the question of whether Ms. Martin deserved the ax -- but executives close to the situation said VW had actually hoped to increase sales something like 30%, which certainly makes a 5% increase look rather disappointing.

Bent on returning VW to 500,000 annual vehicle sales, Mr. Hallmark plans to shift messaging this quarter with the introduction of a unifying ad theme aimed at capturing VW's brand soul and embodying its three core pillars: affordable German engineering, distinctive styling and "fun to drive."

Mr. Hallmark said he's a fan of "Drivers Wanted" -- created by the agency Ms. Martin dropped, Havas' Arnold, Boston -- calling it one of most recognized taglines in the industry and hinting that he may bring it back. Mr. Hallmark said he will present a proposal for a single theme to VW Group's new global CEO, Martin Winterkorn, within the next month.

Change agent's theories rejected
It's a 180-degree turn from Ms. Martin, the change agent who said last year that taglines were "overrated," and "the essence of the creative idea is more powerful."

Ms. Martin was dismissed the same day VW's parent announced that one of her biggest supporters at the home office in Germany, VW Brand Chairman Wolfgang Bernhard, would depart at the end of the month, though a VW of America spokesman called the timing a coincidence.

Ms. Martin, the 36-year-old executive who helped establish BMW's Mini in the U.S. with a much-lauded campaign from Crispin, arrived at Volkswagen a marketing rock star. "VW has always been at its best when we make people think," she told Advertising Age earlier this year. "We've always been fearless and not afraid to make a left when everyone is taking a right."

Taking that left generated reams of free publicity. In the hotseat last summer, Ms. Martin lugged two boxes of press clips about VW ads to a meeting with Mr. Hallmark, a move that is said to have postponed her departure, according to executives close to the matter. Ms. Martin could not be reached for comment, but the spokesman said she was "by no means under pressure last summer." He said Ms. Martin was summoned to Germany last summer by a new sales-and-marketing executive to review her U.S. advertising and strategy, which is why she brought news clips.

Escorted out of building
Matters came to a head Jan. 10, executives close to the situation said, when she was escorted out of the building by security at the end of the workday. The spokesman called her departure voluntary, however, and said that anytime an employee of her stature leaves, a security guard is on hand to make sure no sensitive materials are taken and cellphones and laptops are surrendered.

Her ouster raises questions about whether VW will stick with Crispin Porter, which referred calls for comment to the automaker. VW said the agency has a three-year contract, but that almost certainly won't deter rivals from circling the account. Omnicom Group's DDB, for example, which created Volkswagen's famous ads from the 1960s, such as "Lemon" and "Snow Plow," was trying to worm its way back into the automaker's affections as recently as 2005.
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