Volkswagen has taken another step in mainstreaming its brand in the U.S. market, where new models and high hopes have made American consumers more important than ever. The brand has launched a new marketing campaign, "Why VW," and a social microsite featuring all ages and ethnicities in a bid "to capture and share the stories of Volkswagen owners and fans in a whole new way as well as draw new consumers into the Volkswagen experience," as Volkswagen of America put it in a press release today.
The ad campaign and the social hub, designed to encourage storytelling and spark conversations on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and YouTube, represent two new facets of a broadening effort that the brand has been undertaking for about three years now after VW Group honchos in Germany decided that the U.S. market — which had suffered on a side burner for decades — would indeed prove important for their dreams of leading the globe in auto sales.
"We have a lot of new products right now; we're not just a Jetta and Beetle company," Justin Osborne, general manager of marketing communications for Volkswagen of America, told brandchannel. "We're resonating with a much broader and larger base, and we have products that are aligned with consumer tastes."
The idea is that users will share their stories, generating a unique (shareable) page on the microsite such as this one belonging to US marketing VP Kevin Mayer. The campaign's Twitter hashtags are #VWStories and #VWValues, while VW's US Facebook page explains the "Why VW" campaign as follows:
Why VW is our new destination to learn about VW Values, share your VW stories and read about other VW owners and fans. Start exploring and be among the first to share your VW story: http://vwoa.us/WhyVW
"Smiles," the launch TV commercial in the new U.S. campaign, is described thusly:
It's not the miles, it's how you live them. Just a little reminder that every second on earth is an opportunity to live life to its fullest. Brought to you by Volkswagen. Discover more at http://whyvw.com
Previous moves to elevate its U.S. brand relevance have included boosting VW's manufacturing quality, deciding to build VWs in Tennessee, and an overhaul of the Passat sedan to Americanize the new version that VW began building in Chattanooga last year.
Now, VW seems to be borrowing a page from other, decidedly mainstream U.S. brands in its approach via the new initiatives. By highlighting what VW calls "simple, human moments of people of all ages," the "Smiles" spot is resonant of the tone of recent campaigns by Chevrolet and Chrysler in trying to make emotional connections first, before showing off cars. The commercial doesn't promote any VW model per se, just the emotions Volkswagen wants US consumers to associate with the brand — a tactic that's been successful for Coca-Cola with its "Open Happiness" tagline.
As incentive for participation, VW USA will periodically "reward consumer participation and story sharing with special perks, such as event tickets or Volkswagen gear." To get visitors inspired, Volkswagen's press release notes that it "collaborated with the Poptent creative community of 50,000 videographers to source five videos featuring Volkswagen owners and their personal stories. 'We’re excited to partner with Volkswagen to provide video content for whyvw.com,' said Poptent CEO Andy Jedynak. 'Volkswagen is the ideal company to use video crowdsourcing as a storytelling device because they have such an iconic brand with a passionate following of current and past owners who are eager to share their stories.'"
“What sets Why VW apart from other storytelling platforms is the integration of our own content with the real-world experiences of VW owners and fans,” stated Mayer in the release. “If someone wants to learn more about Volkswagen performance or a specific model, they will see relevant consumer stories side-by-side with information we provide.”
Mayer added that “Smiles is a creative representation of the pure fun and positivity that have defined the Volkswagen brand and vehicles for decades,” said Mayer. “We’ve had a tremendous year in 2012 and the campaign is a celebration of the unique customer experience that we believe continues to draw consumers in to the brand.”
Osborne told brandchannel that "Smiles" will show up in a TV-advertising package as the first of two spots to pique viewers' curiosity. Then later in the show a product-oriented spot typically will run, such as new ads for Jetta or Passat. VW's press release elaborates on how the campaign hopes to stand out in the pre-election clutter:
To provide an upbeat message in the thick of election season, Volkswagen is airing the commercial in water cooler media environments that spark conversation, including presidential debates; the lighter side of election programming such as Comedy Central’s Indecision; and Season Premieres like “Happy Endings” and “How I Met Your Mother.”
In getting more serious about social engagement, VW seems to be veering more onto a path that has been paved by Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet. "Now we have tools for people to submit stories about their VWs and experiences and they won't be lost," Osbourne explained. "This is big for us."
It's big for the brand that it's once again "thinking small" — on the one-to-one, human level — and marks progress from the not-too-distant days when it focused on selling "five V-dubs under $18,000" and mainly tried to appeal to twenty-something males. Certainly, the continued evolution of VW's marketing and branding is contributing to its impressive double-digit-percentage sales gains month after month in the U.S. market.
For VW execs, that kind of growth is what's generating smiles in Herndon, VA, these days.