Volkswagen gets lighthearted in creative reboot with Johannes Leonardo

VW of America's marketing VP on its creative pivot and how it is taking an ‘ebb and flow’ media approach amid supply shortages

Published On
May 24, 2022

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As it was still trying to get past its 2015 global diesel emissions scandal, Volkswagen of America in 2019 unleashed a new campaign called “Drive Something Bigger than Yourself” that touted causes ranging from water conservation to highway traffic de-congestion.

Now, with the scandal mostly in its rearview window, VW is taking a decidedly lighthearted turn with a new round of ads and social media and influencer work that attempts to reclaim the clever, witty tone of the brand’s past. At the same time, VW is executing a more flexible media buying plan to deal with the unpredictability of today’s automotive market caused by supply chain issues.

“It’s time to refresh and reboot” and make “something folks can relate to on an everyday level,” Kimberley Gardiner, senior VP of marketing at VW of America, said in an interview. “When our work has a bit of that Volkswagen smile, that wink, it feels clever, it doesn’t take itself completely seriously and it speaks to affordable, practical German engineering—that is when we know we’ve got something.”

VW has kept the “Drive Bigger” tagline. But new ads from lead agency Johannes Leonardo interpret it at a much more practical and personal level, showing simple acts of kindness (with VW vehicles playing a central role) rather than the sweeping societal messages seen in previous work. 

One spot, above, called “Those Guys,” features an annoying, impolite man who is so absorbed with his smartphone that he has no consideration for those around him. His obsession nearly kills him as he crosses the street head-down, but he is saved by VW’s “standard front assist” system that causes the driver of a VW Atlas to break in time before hitting him. Bjorn Ruhmann directed via Smuggler.

Another ad, directed by Bryce Dallas Howard and produced by Prettybird, plugs the brand’s growing lineup of SUVs by positioning VW owners as going against the herd of other SUV drivers by playfully showing a stray sheep jumping into the back of a VW. The people in the vehicle then keep it as a pet.


The ad positions VW as “nonconformist,” said Jonathan Santana, a group creative director at Johannes Leonardo who recently joined the agency from Lucky Generals. “We are for those who choose differently.”

But the biggest noticeable shift in tone might be soon apparent with a social media campaign still under development. The plan, as outlined by Santana and Gardiner, will use a comedian to poke fun at annoying everyday driving habits via content spread across Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. VW will also deploy a range of influencers to make similar observations and then attempt to get the public to contribute their own observations, with VW using some of this to fuel its own content.

The approach is “making it less about—here is a TV spot,” Gardiner said, and more about “what is the fun conversation we want to have with people and how do we want to bring that to life in a different way.”

A more 'flexible' media approach

VW still plans to still spend on linear TV, but is pouring more into connected TV, addressable TV and targeted digital video. The goal, Gardiner said, is a “portfolio approach where we can rebalance and balance again depending on where we are with supplier inventory and consumer demand.” 

Such flexibility has become more important for automakers during the ongoing supply chain struggle caused by microchip shortages, COVID-induced plant shutdowns and disruptions from the Russia-Ukraine war that has led to unpredictable inventory levels, hurting sales.

VW of America's media agency is Omincom Group's PHD.

Gardiner, who spoke to Ad Age late last week on the heels of media owners making their upfront pitches, said VW is aiming to buy about two-thirds of its media on a “flexible” basis—“so channels where we know we can ebb and flow based on where we are with inventory and where demand is sitting.”

She credited TV networks for being open to that approach as they open up inventory across more streaming options. For instance, VW might need to shift spending to a different quarter or month or into a different channel. And “if you are buying that all within a network’s ecosystem, there is a lot more options for us to do that,” she said.

The changes come as VW fights to maintain the momentum gained in 2021, when the brand’s U.S. sales jumped 15% and its network of 638 dealerships averaged a 4.5% return, much better than their historical profit margins, as recently documented by Automotive News.

U.S. sales of the VW brand slid 28% in the first quarter of 2022. But parent company Volkswagen Group delivered positive news earlier this month, reporting that it expects the semiconductor shortage to ease in the year’s second half, leading to more vehicle production.