Skip to main content
Okay, sue me, but I’m still a little wrapped up in those last Super Bowl spots.

 

I’m singling out the one by Volkswagen because it gives me a soapbox to talk about one of my favorite subjects: brand story. Simply put, brand story is the narrative of how your product or service became imprinted on the minds—but more importantly on the souls of your consumers. Without a brand story these days, you’re SOL. There’s nothing to distinguish you from your competitors but a bunch of features. You might as well be that house brand bag of frozen peas in the bin at Trader Joe.

You owe it to yourself to watch the two-minute extended cut of this spot on YouTube. It plays like the mash-up of a Ken Burns documentary and the opening number of a blockbuster Broadway musical. In a montage of well-shot and masterfully edited images, it tells the story of Volkswagen in America to Neil Diamond’s “I Am… I Said,” a tune that rose to Number Four on the U.S. pop charts in 1971. Initially the film footage is in black and white, but it segues skillfully into technicolor as both the car and the country grow up. (We didn’t get color TV until 1954, remember?)

One of the first images we see is the original Volkswagen Beetle. This unassuming car became the brand icon, making Volkswagen stand out among its competitors when most cars were as big as boats and sported the kind of styling you’d expect to see on a craft bound for the Red Planet. Intentional or not, the VW Bug—with its round-eyed headlights and bonnet that curves in an upward smile—sports an almost human face, immediately unique and endearing. And as post-World War II America emerged from rationing and wanted more, Volkswagen offered—well, less.

Modesty has always been an essential part of Volkswagen’s DNA. Missing from this spot (and wisely so) is the brand story piece that involved Adolph Hitler. In the 1930s, the world was still in the throws of the Great Depression and most Germans could barely afford a motorcycle. Only one in fifty owned a car. Hitler ordered Volkswagen to produce a car that would seat two adults and three children, go up to a hundred kilometers an hour, and would cost the American equivalent of $400. When Volkswagen failed to produce according to Hitler’s specs, he switched his sponsorship to a design by VW’s sexier sister Porsche and built a new state-owned factory to manufacture it.

What makes this spot work is that in it we see ourselves. Volkswagen’s story is our story. Every shot in the entire two minutes (and I counted almost 80 of them) was chosen not only for its visual appeal, but for how it makes us feel. How can we see that Darth Vader helmet and not be transported back to the hot summer night when we sat in a movie theater that smelled like burnt popcorn and watched the original Star Wars, or feel nostalgic about being/having a kid with dreams of having The Force at their command, or both? Or see that black and white image of the Statue of Liberty that appears in the first moments of the spot and not think about the century gone by. 

The spot ends with the tagline, “We shape its metal. You shape its soul.” In a tight two minutes, Volkswagen shows us where we came from, where we’ve been, and where–with any luck–we’re going. The “metal” has changed. Today, cars are increasingly being made with more aluminum and less steel. But the soul of the brand is unchanged. In the 75 years since the first Beetle appeared in a New York City showroom, Volkswagen hasn’t forgotten who they are. They’ve never tried to be their sexy sister Porsche or their buff brother BMW. (Interestingly, Volkswagen Group now owns a number of luxury car brands, including Porsche and Bentley.) And although you can get your Jetta with leather seats, Volkswagen prefers to be the car for everyone. Buyers must agree. According to Reuters, Volkswagen sales were up nearly 7% in 2023 after dipping the previous year due to chip shortages and supply chain issues related to the war in the Ukraine. Last year Volkswagen sold almost 30,000 cars in the U.S. That could be a story in itself. In 1949, they sold only two. 

In a year when America’s soul is largely split between those taking either hard right or hard left turns, Volkswagen dares to remind us, “Hey, we’re all in this together.” Whenever they tell their brand story, they calmly stick to the middle of the road.               

     

555 Fayetteville Street
Third Floor
Raleigh, NC 27601