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.


Blogger eydryan said...

Great post Rob, as always your insight is deep but your presentation is simplistic and very much filled with ideas that fail to occur in regular minds. I really enjoyed the refresher and honestly had a moment a week ago in Berlin where I saw the new muscly Beetle and thought to myself: that's not a bad design, talking about a car I would not really care about a year ago.

I'm curious how they pull it off though, I'm sure it's partly to do with generations but I can say that I haven't been too fond of this car before and I tend to like it now. I think it also has to do with the fact that before the branding was targeted strictly to girls and as such boys were just not appealed to. It wasn't just that it was a girl's car to us, but an invisible car to our choice of ride. And now, all of a sudden, comes this strange change wherein it's gone from chic to butch and, well, you can't help but like it.

Thanks for the post, really appreciate reading stuff you write and seeing things through your eyes.

10:02 AM  

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