Volkswagen Fun Theory
When choosing from the list of marketing campaigns for this paper, I chose Volkswagen’s Fun Theory sight unseen. This blind faith was based on their iconic advertising history. Their campaigns from the start were innovative and extremely clever, so when I saw this was something concocted by Volkswagen (or their contracted advertising agency), I knew it would more than likely be much of the same: innovative and groundbreaking. Fortunately, they did not disappoint. Though the campaign only ran for a few years and ended in 2010, its impact is lasting. Let’s start with the beginning of a legend.
World War I though widely known as a trench warfare stalemate saw the advent of mechanized divisional warfare. It was this trench warfare that gave birth to the tank and armored vehicles, and thus, everyone could see where the future of warfare was going. At the end of the war, the Treaty of Versailles left Germany saddled with extremely heavy sanctions and reparations that destroyed the economy. And it was in this environment that a young Adolf Hitler capitalized on the economic conditions and came to power promising a restoration of national pride via a socialist platform. Of course we all know Hitler isn’t exactly known for positive contributions to mankind, but in the case of Volkswagen, he stumbled into it. One of his pledges was to make an affordable car for everyone. He also pledged to devise a national highway system for Germany’s citizens to drive them on. The car would be called the Volkwagen, which translates as “the people’s car”, and the highway system would be called the Autobahn. Its design included the very same onramp/offramp features we use today. As we would soon learn, Hitler saw the Autobahn as a dual-purpose system; if it could transport individual vehicles, it could also transport an entire army across they country faster than any army had ever moved before.
At the same time in America, the idea of mechanized warfare was not lost on the military either. Therefore, a young, eager officer fresh out of West Point was commissioned after the war to do an updated version of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Dwight D. Eisenhower, was tasked to chart a course spanning the continent from east to west as a feasibility study with the idea of building a road from one end to the other. This experience, and a visit to Germany a decade later would lead to his Presidency and the commission of the National Highway system in the 50’s.
Back in Germany, Ferdinand Porsche was commissioned to design and build the car shortly before World War II, but very few were produced before the new factory was converted to production of the Kubelwagen for the war…with slave labor. This vehicle was later exported to the US in a civilian version known as “The Thing.”
After the war, production resumed and sales were brisk across Germany and all of Western Europe. After a couple of failed attempts to penetrate the US market in the early 50’s, VW realized they would need an American agency to make any type of meaningful splash in a market that was vastly different from Europe.
First, they were in completely different sectors of Maslow’s famous chart. Most of Western Europe was literally destroyed both physically and economically during the war and still recovering. The European customer was barely out of the “physiological” phase seeking shelter and security and very much in a utilitarian mode when it came to any product, much less a vehicle. In contrast, America was untouched, and well into the “self-actualization” phase. Vehicles were huge, ostentatious, and a status symbol. It was the era of big chrome and bigger fins.
Secondly, Americans proved to largely be less forgiving of Germany’s transgressions. Though for Europe, the lack of other viable options may have been a factor, Americans had begun their love affair with Detroit, and it had no desire for a small, cheap, unrefined, utilitarian car that lacked a fuel gage and only came in one color. And worst of all, it was Hitler’s brainchild. America had left the Model T behind decades ago, and the Beetle actually had more in common with the defunct Ford than current Detroit models at that time. Volkswagen was facing an extremely hostile environment.
It was this “rich” history and market climate that demanded an entirely different type of marketing approach, and in 1959, they began the roots of what would prove to be the beginning of a long-lasting willingness to operate out of the box. They were so far out of the box, they simple created their own. They hired a Jewish-owned American advertising agency in New York, known only previously for promoting other Jewish businesses.
Doyle Dane, and Bernbach (DDB), was hired to promote the Beetle in the US. This turned heads, as they were not a prestigious firm, but they would soon make their mark. How would they gain a foothold in the market with the odd-looking “Hitler-mobile?” Just ignore the bad, and focus on the good.
What DDB correctly identified was that everything about this car was different. From design, appointment, power, and price, it was exactly the opposite of American car culture at the time, and therefore, so was their customer. But the contrarian has its own segments. Whether the customer was interested only because of price point, or interested in making a statement, there was a contrarian market, and fortunately for the Volkswagen, America was on the eve of the mother of all contrarian movements. By the mid-sixties, and Volkswagen had become symbolic of the movement. This is not to be overblown, however. The reality is that the Beetle was the cheapest car on the market, and protesting students weren’t exactly rolling in cash. My parents bought a Beetle in 1971 not because they liked the car, but because “it was the only new car we could afford.”
Nevertheless, their marketing was a mirror image of the car itself; cheap, unique, simple, very clean, and very effective. Many of their print ads can be seen here.
Fast-forward 40 years, and Volkswagen’s marketing prowess has not been diminished. Enter the age of electronic and social media, and globalization. Enter the Fun Theory. DDB is still running the show, and running circles around the competition.
Volkswagen sponsored an annual contest known as the Fun Theory Award. The idea is to make a desired change in behavior easier by incorporating fun. Some of the more popular submissions are designed to encourage more socially responsible behavior such as adding a screen to stoplights that asks trivia questions when red to encourage people to actually stop at red lights. By stopping and waiting, they can be entertained by the light itself, and therefore be more likely to stop for it. Another is a can and bottle powered jukebox designed for summer street parties. This is to encourage recycling and reduce the trash-laden aftermath. Recycling would then quite literally would keep the party going.
There are quite a few things that stand out here.
First is that the contest is clearly worldwide. Submissions come from all over the world. Secondly, all of the winners have concepts of social responsibility. Third, is the overarching theme of fun. If you’re an international auto powerhouse like Volkswagen, all three of these concepts are well worth being associated with your brand. These concepts are truly the core of their brand. Their product is fun to drive, at least when operational. VW is truly an international brand, and is heavily invested in social consciousness with their TDI Clean Diesel motors. In fact, this aspect of their image and mission we now know has proven to be so integral to the brand image, they were willing commit fraud on a massive scale to promulgate it.
Here in America, the brand isn’t as strong nationally as it is abroad, but is very popular regionally. This is largely because of regional values and a desire for international flavor. In many ways, European ideals are more in line with people here in the Northwest, or at least this is how many here want to be perceived. Volkswagen and particularly its TDI motor are a perfect fit for this mindset. Even though the numbers don’t pencil out financially due to the vehicle’s initial cost and the higher price of diesel fuel, fuel consumption is typically less, and more importantly, it supports the image of the sophisticated, environmentally conscious citizen. People indeed are willing to pay more for that.
The ingenious aspect of the whole Fun Theory contest is that VW chooses the winner. Therefore, they can choose the project that most closely mirrors the image they most want to promote. It would seem VW took an internal look at its ideals and created this contest to match them. Finalist include:
Wiki Traffic Light-Mexico
Connect 4 Beer Crate-Belgium
Fun Tram Tickets-Australia
Pinball Exercise Machine-Peru
Speed Camera Lottery-Sweden
One-Armed Vending Machine-Italy
Gaming Safety Belt-Sweden
The second thing that stands out is that many of them require substantial funding and extensive cooperation from government entities to implement. For instance, the winner is the Speed Camera Lottery.
Speed Camera Lottery:
It appears the contest ended in 2010 with the winner being the Speed Camera Lottery. The process of idea to implementation is a testament to electronic and social media. The idea was submitted by an American but implemented in Stockholm in conjunction with VW and Sweden’s National Society for Road Safety. The idea is that traffic cams measure a vehicle’s speed. If it’s at or under the speed limit, it records the license plate and image of the driver, and enter the driver/registered owner into a lottery pot funded by traffic violations.
Another interesting aspect of this is the immense financial commitment required to implement such a thing and the idea that Stockholm was willing to form a lottery pool, reallocate funds probably intended for road improvement to give it to a winner, and retrofit traffic cameras to include a revamping of recording software, databases, and the like. It seems quite unsustainable, and it was.
Their biggest hit was the piano staircase. In an effort to get more people to use the stairs in a Stockholm subway station, they transformed the staircase into piano keys that played different pitches when walked on. They then set up cameras to record the reaction, and posted it on YouTube where it hit over 1 million views. For 2009, this was astounding. Dealing with the practicalities of permitting, and getting approvals for such a project surely was a nightmare, but DDB’s continued willingness to think outside the box paid huge dividends. Over 1 million views free of charge and a simple VW logo at the end was likely quite similar to printing money. (mashable) It can be seen here.
Due to the age of the campaign, it has been difficult to find specifics on its impact and follow its progression through social media, but it did win the Cyber Grand Prix at the 57th International Cannes Lions Advertising Festival for best viral ad campaign.
What is clear is that the Fun Theory campaign was directly in line with Volkwagen’s storied history of groundbreaking, innovative, efficient, and effective advertising. They continue to set the trend and stay ahead of the curve, and DDB continues to occupy the driver’s seat 50 years later.