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Could a Marketing Reset Help Volkswagen Shift Gears?

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It’s been a busy February for Volkswagen, which is fresh from airing a blockbuster Americana-inspired Super Bowl spot celebrating 75 years in the U.S.

In between perfecting its Big Game moment, the brand also found time to conclude some elements of its marathon $2.6 billion media pitch within the last month, and saw the departure of its chief marketing officer. Earlier in February, the German automaker confirmed that Nelly Kennedy, global CMO for its passenger business, has stepped down after just over 12 months in the role.

A spokesperson for the brand told Adweek that Kennedy was departing for personal reasons and would finish up on March 31. The company said “her successor will be announced later,” but stopped short of confirming the CMO position would be replaced directly.

Elsewhere, Manfred Kantner, Volkswagen’s former Europe sales chief, has been named head of product marketing, signaling further changes to the brand department.

No longer ‘competitive’?

The personnel updates follow Volkswagen’s own admission that it’s no longer “competitive,” with chief executive for its passenger business, Thomas Schäfer, telling staff in November: “With many of our preexisting structures, processes and high costs, we are no longer competitive as the Volkswagen brand.”

Paul Domenet, partner and creative strategy director at U.K. brand consultancy Free the Birds, worked on campaigns for Volkswagen in the late ’80s and early ’90s while at creative shop BMP (now Adam&Eve/DDB).

He argues marketing has an important role to play in helping the brand shift gear, and whoever fills the top spot will need to rethink how Volkswagen differentiates.

“For so long, Volkswagen advertising was best in class. The Volkswagen campaign [“Think Small”] created by Bill Bernbach in the ’60s changed advertising for many reasons, one of them being that in the U.S. car markets, when [Volkswagen] launched the Beetle, it was unlike any other car.”

Bill Bernbach's "Think Small" ad for the Beetle.
Bill Bernbach’s “Think Small” ad for the Beetle.Volkswagen

He added: “Today, Volkswagen has lost its distinctiveness, when at one time it was the most distinctive car brand around. I truly suspect that this has been reflected in the sales, and it’s a fantastic case study of what happens when you lose the soul, the personality, the distinctiveness, the originality.”

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