Think Small: Volkswagen’s Mantra May Prove Fatal

 

As a car guy and advertising professional it pains me to watch the great Volkswagen brand disintegrate right before my very eyes. The chairman of VW, the largest car company in the world, believes the current emissions scandal could bankrupt them. What a bummer. My ride of choice has been a series of absolutely fantastic Audi models dating back to 1996. VW owns Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Porsche, along with a couple other lesser-known marques. Of course, they won’t all go away if VW unravels. They’ll be horse-traded with other automakers if the house falls apart, but it will be messy. This is what VW gets for thinking small. Too small. The company’s culture obviously had been reduced to one that prizes expediency over ethics. That’s about as small as you can play in business. But it was a much different sort of small that made the brand famous in the first place.

If VW goes away it would be a sad ending for a giant that only reached such heights because of a humble print advertising campaign. Of course, it wasn’t just any advertising campaign, as the following commentary from Second Wind explains.

“In 1959, when legendary agency Doyle Dane Bernbach put forth that famous Volkswagen ad campaign, VW was a struggling German auto manufacturer with a slight image problem. Their cars were quirky looking and tiny, at least by US standards. This was the era of the land yacht—the Buick Electra, Cadillac Fleetwood, Chevy Impala, Pontiac Bonneville, Ford Thunderbird, replete with big tailfins and mile-long body styling. “The Peoples Car” (literally “folks wagon”), on the other hand, was targeted at the many within the Third Reich who could previously afford only motorcycles. Yes, that Third Reich… the Volkswagen, designed in 1933, was one of Hitler’s pet projects. DDB’s campaign, entitled “Think Small,” asked buyers to consider gas economy, reliability and other practical issues when purchasing a car, instead of being beguiled by big engines, tailfins and all the other glitzy automotive accouterments of the ’50s.

1960-Cadillac-Fleetwood

The classy, simple, black-and-white ads spoke clearly about the brand, and offered a stark contrast to Detroit’s bright, flashy, status symbol marketing. The campaign was an immediate success, both in the press and on the showroom floor. Volkswagen went on to become an iconic brand in America and has sold millions of cars since. In 1999, Advertising Age named “Think Small” the No. 1 advertising campaign of all time in their “Century of Advertising” publication. So, you could say that in the case of Volkswagen, small was definitely good. Here’s another facet of this “small is good” scenario: Doyle Dane Bernbach had just 21 employees when they created the “best advertising campaign” ever.”

Unfortunately for VW, even Doyle Dane’s 60s-era advertising magic would be no match for the problem they’ve created for themselves. As the saying goes, it takes years to build trust but only seconds to destroy it.