NEW YORK -- Herbie the Love Bug rides again … sort of.
Volkswagen, which has a goal of tripling U.S. sales to about 1 million vehicles by 2018, is rolling out a classic Beetle as the brand's face and voice in a quirky TV, Web and print ad campaign that starts Monday in print and will be on TV starting Saturday. The campaign's star is "Max," a pristinely restored 1964 black Bug.
The stepped-up brand advertising precedes Volkswagen's introduction this year of several new vehicles, including the Tiguan crossover SUV, Routan minivan, Passat CC, clean diesel Jetta TDI and Jetta SportWagen. VW would not disclose the ad budget.
"We're reintroducing Volkswagen to the world by using a lovable icon that everyone will know and relate to," says Tim Ellis, VW's vice president of marketing. "Max will be integrated into everything we do and will be the connective tissue as we launch new vehicles."
In the TV ads, Max speaks with a German accent (VW won't say who provides the voice) and plays a talk-show host. He conducts offbeat interviews with an eclectic batch of celebrities, including supermodel Heidi Klum, Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy, Napster founder Shawn Fanning and David Hasselhoff of Baywatch fame. The first to air will feature basketball coach Bobby Knight and will appear during the Final Four of the NCAA men's basketball tournament on Saturday. Max provokes an outburst from Knight by poking fun at his recent retirement.
"If people look at it and say it's silly, that's a good thing," Ellis says. "There's so much screaming going on, you have to take a chance and do something odd and silly. You're gaining their attention and a few moments to get them to stop and think about your brand."
VW needs more people to think about it. Sales were down 6% in the first two months of this year vs. the same period a year ago, and 2007 sales were down 5% from 2006. VW, Europe's largest automaker, has just 2% of the U.S. market.
"You have to steal market share today to grow," says Ellis, an award-winning marketer who was with Volvo for four years before joining VW in December. "You have to steal from Honda and Toyota. You have to understand those brands and their appeal and create an exciting new voice for VW together with exciting new vehicles."
Ellis and Miami ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which created the Burger King "King," chose a Beetle to represent VW because they see it as a pop-culture icon.
For a few weeks, Max and the celebrities will be the campaign's centerpiece. Then they will take a back seat as ads begin for the introduction of specific models.
The first of those ads will be for the new Tiguan in May.
Other campaign details:
•TV ads. Each celebrity is used to represent a particular trait of the brand. German supermodel Klum, for instance, tells Max that he's a feat of beautiful German engineering. Hasselhoff, a pop music star in Europe, talks with Max about being a European best seller.
"It's very easy to go out and hire supermodels and superstars and just have them say they represent your brand," Ellis says. "Every person we chose is unique and has a unique take on something we want to say about our cars."
•Web and print ads. With a theme of "What People Want," ads feature about 30 statements — such as "people want fewer passwords" and "people want dogs more than cats" — based on poll results from around the world.
Print ads send people to volkswagen.com, and Web ads let people click on the statements to vote on whether they agree, to see how others have voted and to comment. Says Ellis, "We want to create buzz and get people to check out Volkswagen again."
Auto restorers max out effort to bring Max in front of cameras by deadline
Max is a real, restored 1964 VW Beetle. Actually he's five of them.
One non-original part is Max's voice box. The five German-accented clones will make appearances around the nation.
After Volkswagen marketers settled on the 1964 model as best representing a classic Beetle, admakers had three weeks, Dec. 24 to Jan. 13, to have the first Max ready for his close-up, says Brian Schultz, a producer with VW agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
Teams began a mad search for a restoration expert and restorable Beetles. Within days they found John Bickel, a VW restoration expert who runs State of Mind Customs in Oxford, Mich. Meanwhile, those scrounging for cars and parts found enough for eight to 10 finished cars.
The hardest part to find in mint condition: steering wheels.
"You look at an old car like an old house. You don't know what you're going to find," Schultz says. "We reached out to everyone and everything to find the best cars."
As cars arrived at Bickel's shop, each was stripped to its bones. A team of 20 then began restoration. Each piece of bodywork was media-blasted, each imperfection fixed and the undercarriage painted.
The bodywork was painted, then color-sanded to a brilliant shine.
Most parts were refinished before reinstallation. Electrical wiring was run. Gauges, lights, the 10-gallon gas tank and trim were refitted. Rebuilt engines and transmissions went in.
Next up: the headliner, side leatherette and trim. Then came the glass and, finally, the seats — reupholstered in the Beetle's red "leatherette."