Volkswagen: a Drive Down Memory Lane

As we hurtle into the new millennium, social experts are busier than ever assessing the impact of a host of environmental forces on consumers and the marketers who serve them. Some experts observe how ‘millennial fever’ is driving consumer behaviour in all sorts of interesting ways. Today, people of all ages seem to feel a bit overworked, overstimulated and overloaded. While they hail the benefits of the wired 90s, they are also overwhelmed by the breathtaking onrush of the Information Age, with its high-speed modems, cell phones and pagers.

The result of this ‘millennial fever’ is a yearning to turn back the clock, to return to simpler times. This yearning has in turn produced a massive nostalgia wave to which marketers of all kinds have responded by re-creating products and images that help take consumers back to ‘the good old days’. Examples of such flirtations with nostalgia include retro roadsters such as the Porsche Boxter, DaimlerChrysler’s PT (personal transportation) Cruiser and the new Mini.

The singer Aretha Franklin re-recorded ‘Rescue Me’ as ‘Deliver Me’ for a Pizza Hut commercial, a recent Pepsi commercial rocks to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’, while Janis Joplin’s raspy voice crows, ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?’ Perhaps no company has more riding on the nostalgia wave than Volkswagen.

Back in the 1950s, the original Volkswagen Beetle, with its simple, bug-like design, no-frills engineering and economical operation, was the antithesis of American brash, chrome-laden gas guzzlers. Although most owners would readily admit that their Beetles were under-powered, noisy, cramped and freezing in the winter, they saw these as endearing qualities. Overriding these minor inconveniences, the Beetle was cheap to buy and own, dependable, easy to fix, fun to drive and anything but flashy. During the booming 1960s, demand exploded and the Beetle blossomed into an unlikely icon.

Bursting with personality, the understated Bug came to personify an era of rebellion against conventions. By the late 1970s, however, the ‘baby boomers’ (babies born post World War II, that is, between 1946 and 1964) had moved on, Bug mania had faded. Still, more than 20 years later, allusion to these chugging oddities evokes smiles and strong emotions. Now, in an attempt to surf the nostalgia wave, Volkswagen has introduced a New Beetle.

Outwardly, the re-born Beetle resembles the original, tapping the strong emotions and memories of times gone by. Underneath the New Beetle is none other than a fourth generation VW Golf – packed with modern features, but wrapped up in an old-style package. Built into the dashboard is a bud vase perfect for a daisy plucked straight from the 1960s. But right next to it is a high-tech multi-speaker stereo. It also comes with airbags and power outlets for mobile phones – and options like power windows, cruise control and a power sunroof make it a very different car from the rattly old Bug. With a familiar bubble shape that still makes people smile as it skitters by, the new Beetle offers a pull that is purely emotional.

Advertising for the New Beetle plays strongly on the nostalgia theme, while also refreshing the old Beetle heritage. ‘If you sold your soul in the ’80s,’ tweaks one ad, ‘here’s your chance to buy it back.’ Other ads read, ‘Less flower, more power’, and ‘Comes with wonderful new features. Like heat.’ Still another ad declares ‘0 to 60? Yes.’ The car’s Web page (www3.vw.com/cars/newbeetle/main.html) summarises:

‘The New Beetle has what any Beetle always had. Originality. Honesty. A point of view. It’s an exhaustive and zealous rejection of banality. Isn’t the world ready for that kind of car again?’ ‘Millennial fever’ results from the convergence of a wide range of forces in the marketing environment – from technological, economic and demographic forces to cultural, social and political ones. Most trend analysts believe that the nostalgia craze will only grow as the baby boomers, whose emotions are tied closely to the Beetle, continue to age. Says another trend analyst, the New Beetle ‘is our romantic past, reinvented for our hectic here-and-now. Different, yet deeply familiar – a car for the times.’[i]

Questions

1.What factors govern the effective use of nostalgia marketing? Do you agree with the suggestion that the Beetle nostalgia craze will grow as the ‘baby boomers’ continue to age? Explain. 2.In addition to watching and responding to consumer trends, what other actors and forces in the marketing environment should be considered by companies in order to develop and maintain successful relationships with their customers? 3.To what extent are companies such as Volkswagen able to forecast future trends in the marketing environment?