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Volkswagen of America's Jonathan Browning addressed this year's Chicago Auto Show with a challenge to himself: turning VW into one of America's truly mainstream brands.
Two days earlier a forceful VW Super Bowl ad had caused a galactic stir, before its new Passat is even close to showrooms.
Browning began with a history lesson. He claimed Chicago and VW have a rich history. It began, he said, with Beetles displayed at the 1951 Chicago Auto Show. Then, Browning shifted to a larger theme. He charted VW's growth in the USA, where it captured seven percent of the market in 1970. Since then, VW's share dropped.
New game plan: global powerhouse, American relevance
VW's global priority, says Browning, is "to grow VW in the U.S. market." The German parent company wants to strengthen its performance here. It's part of the firm's larger plan to become the world's leading carmaker by 2018. As Browning says, "If it can make it here, it can make it anywhere." And during 2010, VW sold seven million units worldwide. It's the world's third-largest car company.
Browning asserts VW's global reputation for engineering excellence is the foundation for VW's forward movement. This includes improving quality and increasing customer satisfaction. The people-car company, he says, is also concerned about social responsibility. He cites VW's new ecologically sensitive U.S. assembly plant as part of this story. It's expected to directly employ 2,000 workers and another 10,000 in auxiliary jobs. There's also a partnership with minority-owned businesses.
Besides its U.S. infrastructure, Browning claims VW is focused on its products and dealers. It's developing cars tailored for U.S. requirements, priced at the "sweet spots." With a broader portfolio and two models specifically designed for American car buyers (Passat and Jetta), VW delivers German engineering for all.
This isn't easy. Nonetheless, Browning argues that VW's global scale and common engineering modules allow it to customize. It can meet local requirements with only small cost increases. The next Beetle, he says, will "redefine the shape of performance."
Advertising tour de force
Advertising is a brand strategy. To reach lots of Americans, Browning says VW chose a big sporting event-football, American style. It knew its Super Bowl ads had to stand out. It aired two: "Black Beetle" and "The Force." Timing, he argues, was everything. Therefore, VW released them as teasers on the web. Before the game, "The Force" racked up 12 million views. To prove his point, both ads were played on a projection screen.
The strictly business audience laughed hysterically, when they saw the amazed reaction of a dejected child in a Darth Vader costume. The tyke appears to have summoned the Force animating a VW Passat. A cutaway reveals this kid's dad starting the car via remote control. A second wave of laughter came after the micro-Vader's mask turns toward the camera; he's perplexed. Lunchgoers were charmed.
When asked why this ad didn't focus on the car, Browning's reply revealed VW's mission: the Passat is after a completely new customer base; everybody knows Star Wars, everybody knows a disappointed child story, letting a VW magically perform an emotion turnabout makes it relevant to those who don't know today's VW. Moreover, the vehicle isn't on sale now. "If nothing else, Browing says, the ad should "pump up sales of Vader masks."
In conclusion, Browning argues that VW has a broad portfolio; it's known as a world leader in innovation. It will use science and the useful arts to claim its place in the U.S. market. And he adds, "Let the Force be with you."
He didn't leave the podium, however, without making a sales pitch. When asked what kind of car he drives, his reply, "a hybrid Touareg." Then, he said he would take orders immediately after lunch. Another round of laughter; this guy is serious. He wants to sell more VWs in America.