Volkswagen’s latest work is a cinematic admission of emissions scandal guilt. But once the campaign’s intensive (and expensive) media buy comes to an end in two weeks, the brand will launch itself into its real agenda: a radical reinterpretation of the messaging that first made its name as a culture-shifting brand.
The first work out of the marque’s slimlined roster of WPP agencies is ‘Hello Light’.
The shadowy cliché-buster of an auto ad masochistically relives the wrongs of the emissions scandal to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence’, filling the screen with light in the final shot to signify VW’s emergence into a new dawn of vehicle electrification.
The spot is long for US TV – one minute and 45 seconds long – but will be played “85-90% of the time” in its full version across high-profile ad slots: tonight’s (5 June) NBA Finals, the US Open, the Tony Awards and across a YouTube takeover that will garner 300m impressions.
For VW’s senior vice-president of marketing, Greg Tebbutt, it’s an expensive but necessary “prequel” to the real strategic work that’s to come down the line.
“It felt like the right moment in time to put this message out there and talk about how what happened in the past really powered a new future and new direction for the company,” he told The Drum. “That was the basis behind the timing of this. We identified the need to really clear the air and create this moment because [the emissions scandal] was really the elephant in the room.”
The campaign may run short and deep but Tebbutt’s team will be monitoring its effects on brand consideration carefully.
In the US, 30% of prospective auto buyers “actively reject” the VW brand – a rather damning figure given it only has a 2% market share in the country. The marketer hopes this blast of investment will bump those numbers and has a team on standby to monitor brand KPIs on a weekly basis after the spot’s release.
It wasn’t a difficult job convincing his bosses to release more budget into brand building. For one, the automaker’s president and chief executive, Scott Keogh, is the former marketing chief of Audi and, according to Tebbutt, has not lost his faith in the power of brand.
Secondly, the SVP notes that marketing is still respected as a vital growth mechanism in the automotive sector.
“The development of cars takes years – it’s a very big and slow turning ship,” he explained. “Marketing and brand is one of the few levers we really have to really affect some substantial change in a short amount of time.”
But the real work was done before ‘Hello Light’ was even greenlit. In the years after Dieselgate, the brand went through somewhat of an existential crisis. According to Tebbutt, it questioned everything about what it stood for: what it produced, what its values were, what its staff should and shouldn’t be proud of, and what would make it stand apart now it was already on the back foot in the rush to electrify.
At the end of this process, its conclusion was to go back to the future: reinvent itself as an electric vehicle provider, but use its inherited economies of scale to drive prices down to an mass market point; completely rework its brand story, but do so by modernizing its most successful creative from the 60s and 90s.
It assembled a bespoke WPP team to do the latter, putting Johannes Leonardo at the helm.
“We’ve always been an agency that's equally in awe of the past as we are the future,” said Leo Premutico, co-founder and chief creative officer of the lead agency. “VW is the brand that invented modern advertising ... and the more we looked into it the more we realized there were two pivotal moments: when the brand first came to America with the 'Think Small' era of advertising, and 'Drivers Wanted', where they pushed up against the idea of the corporate rat race.
“It became clear to us that what we needed to do was really find a way to become culturally relevant again.”
The creative agency riffed off this idea of American counter-culture, which was born out of Doyle Dane Bernbach's legendary post-war work for VW. Johannes Leonardo arrived at ‘Drive Something Bigger Than Yourself’ – a call to action among a young, environmentally conscious generation rebelling against gas guzzlers, much like their grandparents rebelled against the square, hulking cars of the early 1960s.
“We became a brand just playing the price game instead of really understanding who we are and really since the mid-00s, when 'Drivers Wanted' ended,” admitted Tebbutt. “We were at our best when we connected with a generation that was leading a change. We feel the brand can be a part of that and connect with people leading that change.”
The first work out of ‘Drive Bigger’ is an unapologetic throwback to the work of DDB. Lemon – the long-form print ad now known as one of Bill Bernbach’s masterpieces – becomes Lemonade. The car featured in ‘Think Small’ poster becomes even smaller in its 2019 reproduction. And of course, ‘Driver Bigger’ is a play on ‘Think Small’ in itself.
This time around, however, the copy features more than just clever quips. The brand is using the campaign to lay out all that it’s doing for the environment, including a target of carbon neutrality by 2050, a reduction of its global carbon footprint by 30% by 2025 and a donation of “a million dollars” that will help teachers bring school supplies to schools, according to Premutico.
“We really feel here that we both have the credibility and the responsibility to take on what we think is becoming a norm right now, which is self-interest,” he said. “That's what we think is going to give us a unique perspective.”
VW has set itself a monumental task in overhauling its brand perception while enthusiastically joining in the industry’s overhaul to electrification. ‘Hello Light’ is expensive and exposing, while ‘Drive Bigger’ – for all its nostalgia – may not land with a younger audience unfamiliar with the work of Bernbach and co.
But at least what it’s doing is ethically right – and that is a big step forward for an auto giant cheating emissions tests just three-and-a-half years ago.
Was the scandal, in some ways, a painful yet necessary catalyst? Was it a long-term brand blessing disguised as a short-term PR disaster?
“I think we would have got there eventually,” Tebbutt replied, “but we wouldn't have got there as quickly as we have if that hadn't had happened.”