Q&A: VW Has A Unique Position, Even Underwater


Tim Mahoney, EVP and chief product marketing officer for Volkswagen of America, was in San Diego post-Los Angeles Auto Show to give members of the press a run in the new Beetle R performance series. The brand itself is souped up, too, with increasing sales, consideration and market share. Mahoney talks to Marketing Daily about the Beetle, the brand, and the business of staking a claim in a crowded field. 

Q: The Beetle has for decades been a car with a happy-go-lucky personality. Where is it now?  

A: The shape of the vehicle is so iconic, you can't change the sheet metal too much, so the strategy from a life-cycle management perspective is to launch a series of derivatives, four of which we showed here in LA: the R line, and three "decade" models to pay tribute to the style and sensitivities of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. It's a people's car, but at the end of the last cycle it had been predominantly a car driven by females -- so adding performance through the R line, as well as Turbo and Fender versions, was a design effort to balance it out a little bit.



Q: Are you extending the R line to other models in the Volkswagen portfolio?

A: We have it already on the CC sedan and are showing it on other vehicles as well, possibly next month when we get to [the North American International Auto Show in] Detroit. 

Q: The Beetle still has its quirky side, like when you made a Beetle-shaped shark cage in which a diver drove around underwater playing Marco Polo with sharks.

A: That was around the Beetle Cabrio launch this summer. We partnered with Discovery Channel on Shark Week and its 25th anniversary. But rather than just treat it as a media placement, we really came at it from an integration standpoint. The [shark-cage] Beetle had headlights, it moved forward and backward. So we had three vignettes, and a digital component. And from that we saw a big spike in August in terms of activity and even sales. 

Q: How's the new campaign, "Why VW," going?

A: It goes back to the idea of building a platform that has content in one place, content around safety, style and performance. But it brings together what we want to say about the brand and what customers say. We have gotten a lot of responses with people submitting content -- everyone has a VW story -- and it is going very well. 

Q: Because of the new campaign, are you going to go in a different direction for the Super Bowl next year?  

A: All of the stories we tell are very human and very simple and some are funny -- not necessarily belly laughs, but a smile, a wink. So I think that formula has worked well for us and will continue to work well for us in the Super Bowl. This year's ad had over 36 million views.

Q: How has customer feedback from "Why VW" helped refine the brand?

A: In grad school, I had a marketing professor who said the purest form of marketing is understanding the customer so well that the product sells itself. If you can have a sense of what the customer is telling you, you can be smarter and more competitive and I think that's what we are trying to do -- whether it's positive or negative. Obviously, it's a lot nicer to get positive feedback, but I find I often learn more from the mistakes I make rather than the things that go right. So we listen to feedback. 

Q: Your professor's assertion only works in an ideal world, doesn't it? The auto market is definitely not ideal, so how does VW define the brand so it stands out?

A: Maybe this is an artificial distinction but there is difference between marketing and branding. I think branding is standing for something, and connecting with a certain audience. That's where I think we have some core pillars: quality and value; performance and style; and commitment and responsibility. We have seen companies that are so focused on what they want to be that they sort of lose touch with the customer. There is a dynamic back-and-forth between listening and understanding the market, and understanding who you are, about where you want to be. 

Q: And how is that dynamic working for VW?

A: I think Volkswagen has a human, simple, cool persona that has allowed us to grow. We are up 36% this year, 26% in 2011, and then 20% the year before that, so the brand is on fire. We have moved from 17th place in consideration to 10th now. We are putting ourselves on the consideration list through product, through marketing and value, and through our retail network. It is really coming together for VW.

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