Thursday, April 26, 2012

Volkswagen Relies on Amnesia

One of the questions I get asked by clients and media alike is the perennial, "How often should we freshen up our brand?" Just asking the question is enough to reveal how little most people really understand branding. The fact is that brands -- real, well-structured brands -- never require "freshening up," because real, well-structured brands are designed for the long haul. And as I relentlessly drone on in my book, The Revenge of Brand X, the whole point of a brand is not to change over time. The purpose of a brand is to remain stable so that it cultivates trust with its users. Think about it: If a brand were to change with the weather, nobody would ever know what to expect from it, which means nobody would ever trust it.

From the brand's perspective, constant -- or even occasional -- change isn't a good thing, either. After all, having to re-build trust every few years is expensive, requiring all sorts of marketing efforts that hit the bottom line and reduce profitability.

So anyone who tells you that "your brand needs to be freshened up" is also telling you he/she knows little, or more likely, nothing about branding at all.


One of the most common errors I see brands commit is confusing product with brand. This, too, is because too few people know what branding really is. For those who find it confusing, let me offer this:

Branding is the promise; products are the proof of the brand's promise.

Simple, right? Sure. So before I get too far into this, let's all agree that Volkswagen's "freshening up" of its line of Beetles is a product story, not a brand story. And that's what I suspect you'll find very interesting.

In 2012, Volkswagen is introducing - yet again - a reborn version of its Beetle. This is not the first time VW has gone this route. All told, VW has been down this road, so to speak, at least three times. And each time, the company has completely repositioned the model in a completely different fashion. Take a brief look at the Beetle's history and you'll see what I mean:

In war time Germany, none other than Adolf Hitler commissioned the design of the "people's car" (the literal translation of "Volkswagen") as an affordable mode of transportation for the master race. From its inception, the car was perceived as "Hitler's car," and in the post-war United States, few Americans were willing to touch it. If you have trouble conceiving that, imagine al Qaida exporting a car to America ten years after 9/11 and you'll pretty much get the idea. Nobody wanted a VW, yet barely a decade after the destruction of the Nazi war machine, Beetles were beginning to crawl across the fruited plains.

An entire generation knew the Beetle as Hitler's until the next generation arrived. Young people having a tendency not to care about what happened before they were born never knew the Beetle as Hitler's car because they didn't live through Hitler's reign of terror. To Volkswagen, the hearts and minds of American youth were a clean slate, ready to accept anything Volkswagen told them about the Beetle.

And so it came to pass that intensive marketing led to the Beetle becoming the Sun Bug, usually yellow, often a convertible and frequently driven by a young blonde girl. As such, the Beetle transitioned from Hitler's gas-stingy, never-say-die, reliable mode of cheap transportation to a chic, cute gosh-isn't-it-a-great-day-out-there statement of female freedom. By the 1980's no self-respecting American male could be caught dead in a Beetle: it was a girl's car.

By 2012, Volkswagen shifted gears once more. By this time, another generation had been born and grown up. By 2012, anyone born in the 1980's was either thirty or close to it. Once again, Volkswagen saw the blank slate of youth and took direct aim, draining all the estrogen out of the cute little Sun Bug and replacing it with testosterone, in hopes of attracting young men who buy into the notion that you are what you drive.

So in three generations, Volkswagen has managed to refresh the Beetle at least three different times, to three different audiences. But the fascinating aspect is that Volkswagen hasn't done it with slick marketing or effective advertising campaigns. In fact, Volkswagen hasn't done it with any type of pro-active effort at all.

The genius of Volkswagen lies in its sly observation of the consuming public's short attention span. VW knows that young people are born with amnesia. It relies on the fact that as far as history before their birth, most young people don't know or don't care -- and quite possibly, both. And that's the reason why it can continue to re-introduce the Beetle to every new generation with such ease.

Volkswagen never changes its brand. It always changes its products. But never before a new generation changes its mind.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Business of Social Media

Unless you've been in outer space the past ten years, you must know something about social media. Well, you must have at least heard about it. For my money, social media is nice, but no big thing, really. It's just doing what people have always done, except now they can do it faster because of technology.

In the pre-internet days, nothing traveled faster than bad news. No matter where you were in the world, it didn't take long to hear about catastrophes. The worse the disaster, the quicker you heard about it. Plague. War. Ships sinking. Airplanes crashing. Regressing through the years before the web, there was television, radio, newspapers. You get the idea. Go back far enough and eventually you get to bell ringing town criers shouting out the evening news as regularly as CNN, CBS, NBC and FOX do today -- only with less drama or special effects.

As a news/gossip pipeline, social media is great. Where else can one fan the flames so that millions of viewers can sit before their devices mesmerized by some stupid cat video? Where else can we so quickly confirm the death, arrest or latest sexual innuendo about some inconsequential celebrity? Whether your choice is Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or another one of this week's digital darlings, social media is really little more than the old-fashioned party line of the Not So New Millennium, where everyone simultaneously jumps on the phone to spread the news about everyone else.

That's all fine and good. If it's entertainment you seek, by all means, have at it. In fact, if raising awareness for your cause is your thing, social media might be the right tool for you. But the minute you let marketing people into the party, things start to spoil faster than three day old flounders. And by the time they're done with it, social media will likely endure the same fate as so many other digital hula hoops.

Let me explain.

While there's no question social media links people together 24/7, it really only does it for social reasons. Keeping up with your boyfriend, your Uncle Ned, the Class of 2006 -- whatever -- is perfect for sites like Facebook, Vimeo and Picasa. But when marketing people try to leverage social media for business, the results aren't quite so good. Sure, you're going to hear a lot of advertising and marketing people hawk the virtues of social media, but if you look really, really closely at their claims, you'll see why it's called social media and not business media.

One of the first myths about social media is the benefits of linking people together. Yes, social media certainly does connect people, including those you thought you'd never have to hear from again. But it's a major mistake to assume linkage of people translates into actions of people, which is what I hear a lot from social media experts. Don't get me wrong, I'm a branding guy and getting more people to evangelize my brand is a good thing. On the other hand, having a million people "like" my brand's Facebook page doesn't add anything to the bottom line.

And that, in my humble opinion, can be a huge waste of resources.

Yes, it's flattering to get fifteen million views on YouTube, but until and unless you can convert those hits to sales, what's the point? Having a million viewers on Pinterest sounds really slick. But when the smoke clears, can you really connect the dots from views or downloads to increased sales?

Marketing people do all they can to distract from this discussion by employing terms like engagement and awareness. It makes them feel good, but not as good as when they get their clients' heads nodding in agreement, even though nobody can tell what, if anything, a social media campaign is doing for the brand. If you don't think that's a problem, recall a while back when Burger King launched its ill-fated "de-friending" campaign on Facebook. It was an unmitigated disaster that actually cost everyone business.

The truth is that marketing has devolved into a science of excuses, fraught with first world problems that have no real significance in the marketplace. Engagement? Really? Have we drifted so far from the purpose of business -- making money -- that entire campaigns can revolve around efforts which have no direct relationship to revenue generation? Is "an uptick in the public attitude of our brand" going to have any bearing on next quarter's sales?

I think not.

Look, I have nothing against social media. Used properly, for the right jobs, I think it's terrific for socially oriented issues. When I hear marketing people attempting to leverage social media for business purposes, though, I always ask the same question:

What kind of real, bottom line results can we expect from this?

To this day, I haven't heard an answer.