Volkswagen of America has kicked off a new ad campaign with a new New York ad agency designed to move the brand forward and hopefully upward after the diesel engine scandal that has weighed down the company for the last four years.
In a nod to the 1960’s glory of both the VW brand and its advertising, the company licensed Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” The ad, which debuted on the NBA Finals Wednesday night, depicts a design engineer reacting to a radio report about the diesel scandal, but then getting back to his work to design what became the I.D. Buzz concept car that is becoming a new iteration of the classic Microbus electric vehicle.
The ad closes with the words: “In The darkness, we found the light. Introducing a new era of electric driving.”
Companies do not often do an open apology as part of an ad charting its future. Volkswagen of America CEO Scott Keogh, who took over last October, has long established himself as a hands-on marketing person. He was chief marketing officer at VW AG’s Audi of America unit, and then CEO.
It is his marketing background and success at Audi that teed him up to take VW’s troubled North American unit forward.
In 2018, Volkswagen of America reported sales increases of 4.2% with passenger VW car sales down by 28% while SUV sales more than doubled. The company sold 354,064 vehicles. That is a very long way from the 1 million cars a year the company was targeting a decade ago to hit by 2020.
To be fair, the executives who made those ridiculous proclamations and goals are long gone. And it was that hyper pressurized culture that probably led VW executives to conspire to fake emissions performance to regulators.
In short, VW had developed a diesel engine that could not run clean enough to satisfy regulations for emissions and deliver performance at the same time. VW employees installed software designed to detect when the car was in a test cycle, so it would operate at satisfactory level, even though emissions performance in real-world driving was ten times worse than the test results.
Several executives were forced to resign or were fired including then-CEO Martin Winterkorn. Trust in the brand was severely damaged. And so far the company is on the hook for $33.6 billion compensating owners of diesel vehicles and penalties and legal judgments.
Volkswagen kicked off a new ad campaign that has roots in its 1960s rise to popularity VW
This new ad, created by new U.S. agency Johannes Leonardo, marks a big change from previous work done the last few years by previous shop, Deutsch.
This agency, and Keogh, seem to be starting a new story for the VW brand that taps into what has made VW one of the “best loved” brands in America, at least among baby boomers who remember the glory days of the Beetle and the 1960s.
But it is doing so without hitting the nail too hard on the head.
The concept is: Admission that we did something very wrong as a company, but that good people (like the designer in the ad) put their heads down to chart a new, enlightened, visionary future for the company and the brand.
The campaign began with the ad titled “Hello Light,” . The ad will have a limited-run. The new “Drive Bigger” phase of the campaign begins June 11. In form, tone and copy, the company says, the advertising will nod even more directly to the ads of the Volkswagen ads of the 1950s and ’60s. The work will run in print media, as well as on TV, digital and social platforms.
Use of the iconic Sounds of Silence song is the nod to that era when the Beetle and Microbus were icons of a generation, and VW’s ads were a cultural pace setter. VW has a pattern of turning to its past to bail itself out of a difficult presence. In the 1990s, when VW of America was struggling to survive, the company showed a concept for a New Beetle that generated enough energy around the brand to see it through until new product arrived. This year, the Beetle is being retired. But the forthcoming Microbus is taking its place on the nostalgia train.
This can work to turn the page passed Dieselgate for a lot of people. But the real solution to Volkswagen’s sales challenge is coming up with more crossover and SUV designs to replace the sedans too few people want. The new Tiguan and Atlas have been sales boosters, but the company needs more designs like that. The Microbus checks that box, as well as the desire to put out an EV with decent range.
Volkswagen has some trying months ahead with many changes besides the ad strategy still to come. The company is reportedly close to discontinuing the base model Golf, which has not been a big seller in the U.S.
Too, VW would suffer from Donald Trump’s pending tariffs on Mexican goods because it sources a bunch of its volume from its Puebla, Mexico plant.
Keogh has a track record of believing that keeping the brand in public and social media conversations is a good way to maintain consideration by consumers.