Tales of the Touareg and other adventures in branding

You’re not likely to see a Volkswagen in the winner’s circle at Daytona or Indianapolis. But if there were competition called the Brand-Building 500, you would find a Volkswagen in the winner’s circle, year after year. Everyone knows the touchstones of branding – creating value, consistency, visibility and loyalty. However, like auto racing, these fundamentals are easy to talk about, but a little more challenging to execute. Nearly anyone can steer a car around a track. But winning consistently against fierce competition in a variety of locations and conditions requires considerable skill.

Few companies are more skilled than Volkswagen at building customer loyalty. Owners become emotionally invested in their cars, invent pet names for them and treat them like extended family members. In addition to automobile devotees, the company has many more admirers who are fans of the brand. Their irreverent image and clever television ad campaigns speak to young buyers today with a message that’s consistent with the one used to sell Bugs to their parents 30 years ago. If you’re a hip, free-spirited kind of person who wants a car with personality, come join us. Among marketers, the company’s promotional prowess is legendary:

The last original VW Bug, forerunner of today’s modernized Beetle, rolled off the production line in 2003 – the last of 21,529,464 sold worldwide since the 1930s. In addition to dozens of Bug restoration and repair books, several compilations of VW’s popular print ads have been published.

A “Transparent Factory” in Dresden, Germany features glass walls that enable residents to witness the manufacture of VW luxury sedans. Finished vehicles are displayed in a glass tower before being delivered to their new owners.

In 1973-74, the company sold 30,000 VW “Things” – a re-badged German military vehicle that looks very much like the offspring of a jeep and a dumpster – to enthusiastic U.S. buyers.

In fact, even as Europe’s largest automaker, VW has been successful in defining a sort of exclusive club for younger, educated drivers. Many of these buyers start with a Jetta or a Beetle before moving on to the company’s more luxurious offerings.

And now comes the Touareg, VW’s entry into the luxury SUV market. Touareg is apparently a first-rate SUV with what USA Today calls “style, grace and growl.” But Touareg? Come on. Passat is an odd name, but “Touareg” sounds like something that needs calamine lotion.

Worship me or die

Perhaps Touareg has some poetic meaning in Slovakia, where it is built. Or perhaps the industry is simply running out of good car names. It’s a good bet that if you looked through enough sci-fi novels, you would encounter an evil warlord called Touareg the Terrible who aims to enslave a galaxy or kidnap a lovely Empress. What’s next? Ming the Mercury? The Plymouth Vader? On the other hand, a “Worship Me or Die!” ad campaign for the Touareg would be a refreshing change of pace from those friendly, self-deprecating Beetle commercials.

On the plus side, it’s a pretty safe bet that Touareg doesn’t mean “won’t go” in Spanish and won’t offend Wiccans, Jaycees or the Saharan nomads the vehicle is said to be named for. But VW could have accomplished that by calling it the Type 181, which is what the Thing was called during its hitch in the military. Perhaps Volkswagen thought that all the good rugged locale names, like Tahoe and the Santa Fe, were taken. The VW “Peoria” or “Levittowner” just wouldn’t have the same caché.

Likewise, many of the good predatory animal names are already taken. Some of the best mythical beasts, like the Thunderbird and Phoenix are also spoken for. Few people would be willing to take on a 60-month loan for a GMC Grackle, Mitsubishi Gerbil or Toyota Trout.

Perhaps automakers can enter brand partnerships with corporate sponsors, as some sports and entertainment facilities have done. The introduction of a Nissan Nike or Plymouth Viagra may not cause much of a stir at this point. With bland brands like Vitara, Spectra, Elantra and Optima becoming more common, one could assume that there are even worse nameplates yet to come. In just a few years, all the good brand names could be taken and we’ll begin to see automakers settling for second-tier names:

15: Volvo Vanilla
14.Nissan Eeyore
13. Oldsmobile Earlybird
12.Lincoln Pimpmobile
11. Chevrolet Groin
10.Kia Uvula
9. Pontiac Schmontiac
8. BMW Strudel
7. Subaru Musty
6.Honda Pretense
5. Isuzu Achoo
4. VW Vin Diesel
3. Mercury Mongrel
2. Plymouth Scrota
1. Hyundai Albundai (for drivers who are married with children)

Another possibility is for automakers to trade on the success of celebrities who have already built winning brands. I would expect that the Cadillac Sinatra would be popular with both older buyers and younger fans of the legendary singer. The Mazda Beyonce would be sleek, fun to drive, have a great sound system and a built-in celebrity endorsement. And it’s hard to imagine that a limited Elvis or Earnhardt edition of any pickup truck wouldn’t drive sales in the South.

Passat? Bless you!

Elvis and evil warlords aside, the bottom line is brand equity, and it doesn’t really matter whether Touareg is a successful sub-branding strategy. Even if individual VW models have names that sound like a sneeze or a rash, buyers seem to focus on the magic of the corporate brand.

Mere marketing mortals should probably assume that VW’s positioning, promotion and publicity formula for the Touareg is on target. The vehicle probably will garner its own cult following, and Touareg clubs, meetings and Web pages will follow. But it’s not because of the name. It’s because the company has consistently excelled in developing the awareness, recognition and loyalty necessary to build a premium brand. After all, any company that has taken the purchasing decision from “Which car should I buy?” to “Which VW should I buy?” deserves the checkered flag.

About the Author

Charles Warnock is Director of BusinessTechKnowledge Inc., a South Florida firm specializing in marketing and technical communications,
e-business and corporate training. Charles can be reached at cw@businesstechknowledge.com. This article can be freely reproduced with author’s bio and contact information.

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