The VW Beetle Story: A Lesson in Brand Persona Development

VW Lemon and Think Small ads

The VW “Lemon” and “Think Small” ads are icons of the late 50s.

Created by Bill Bernbach‘s BBD ad agency, they revolutionized advertising copy and laid out the early foundations for brand storytelling through engaging narrative and brand persona development.

What is Brand Persona?

A brand is not just a name and a logo.  It’s a living, breathing entity equal to the sum of all its communication parts; verbal, visual and experiential.

A brand must develop a multi-dimensional persona. If it succeeds at this, it can garner customer loyalty and encourage brand advocacy; only then can it earn the right to charge a premium rather than compete on price.

According to Denis Brice:

“When a brand’s personality complements our own, we form a friendship with it and give it our trust and loyalty.”

The VW Beetle is a perfect example of a brand with a well-developed persona.

Thanks to the masterful and brilliantly executed early communication strategies dreamed up by visionary admen, the brand’s persona is so well developed that you sometimes forget it’s a car.

Remember Herbie?

It’s no wonder that today, the VW Beetle is the longest-running and most-manufactured car of a single design platform, worldwide.

The story behind the most famous ad ever

The “Think Small” and “Lemon” ads were not intentional.

“Think Small” was a note written by Julian Koenig at BBD in reation to the original creative contrasting VW with large American cars.  ”Lemon” was what a comment made by Rita Selden of one of the proposed ads.

The headline for the original VW ad was intended to be “Willkommen”

The client (Carl Hahn) thought it was too German.  He firmly believed that in order to compete against well entrenched American brands it had to be “as American as Apple Strudel”.

Recent memories of the Holocaust created a major challenge for the brand.

Initially, DDB were unenthusiastic about the opportunity.  George Lois of DDB was quoted as saying : “We have to sell a Nazi car in a Jewish town”

Bernbach eventually convinced Lois: “We’ll take it for a year and use it to get GM”.

The unofficial brief

To sell a small, basic, ugly , economical, foreign car to a market used to huge, chrome-finned, gadget-stuffed, home-built gas guzzlers.

The response

The VW Beetle is an honest car.  Everything about it had to be honest, transparent and straightforward – the product, the pricing, the dealers and even the advertising.

The body copy had to be like a tip from one friend to another.

The rest is glorious ad history.

Impact of the campaign

The ads had unusual high readership levels.  They also had an immediate impact on sales. Imported car sales halved in two years due to the launch of compacts by the 3 major players.  VW sales rose by 25% in the same period.

VW Beetle’s well defined brand persona would future-proof VW’s business for years to come.

It also ruffled a few feathers.  Remember this clip from MadMen?

Some of the quotes from this clip:

  • Harry Crane:  They did one last year, the same kind of smirk. Remember, Think Small. It was a half-page ad on a full-page buy.  You could barely see the product.
  • Don: “It must be getting results they keep going back to the well”
  • “Honest, it’s a great angle”
  • “ugly they went with their strength”
  • Don: “love it or hate it, the fact remains,we’ve been talking about this for the last 15 minutes.”

And the moral of the VW Beetle story?

A well defined brand personality carves a niche in a crowded marketplace and future proofs a business against competitive  fluctuations.  A strong brand personality also allows a business to charge a premium for an otherwise generic product.

In a new age and with the strong influence of social media on branding, a well developed brand persona is as important as ever.

Over to you

Inspired by the VW Beetle story? Can you see how it relates to your brand?  What are you doing to develop your brand’s persona?  Share your thoughts, experience and tips.

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