Branding the Right Way – Rebranding Volkswagen Beetle

Time for another article in the Branding the Right Way series! If you missed the previous article in the series about rebranding FedEx, follow the preceding link to check it out. Today’s article features another successful rebranding effort — Volkswagen Beetle. Who would have thought 20 years ago that a modernized Love Bug would not only be accepted but regain its cult brand status! It’s a great story to learn about how the power of a brand can live for a very long time.

The History of Volkswagen Beetle

herbie the love bugThe Beetle brand name debuted in 1938, and it was immediately known as the people’s car, giving average people the ability to enjoy the freedom and enjoyment of owning their own cars and the ability to achieve economic success. This wasn’t a brand name that business people created. Instead, this brand name came from consumers who had been referring to the car as a beetle for some time. In 1949, Volkswagen was formed to build the Beetle in post-World War II Germany. The same year, the Beetle was officially exported to the United States for the first time.

The 1950s marked a decade of change for the Beetle as it went through a long list of style and performance upgrades that made it a very popular vehicle. These upgrades continued through the 1960s, and the Beetle consistently offered a brand promise of reliability coupled with a size and price tag that working-class consumers loved.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s and 1970s that the Beetle began to see real competition from other small-sized cars like the Toyota Corolla. While the Beetle had gone through many upgrades, new regulations related to emissions and safety would prove to be big obstacles for the brand that had upgraded its product but still relied heavily on its original design and manufacturing developed nearly half a century earlier. Throughout the 1970s, Volkswagen tried to keep up with its competitors and maintain the Beetle’s relevancy in consumers’ minds, but in 1977, the last Beetle was sold in the United States with some convertibles available through 1979.

As the 1980s passed, the Beetle’s life passed along with it until 1985 when all countries except Mexico stopped manufacturing and buying Beetles. The brand lasted in Mexico a bit longer because the Beetle was used as the primary taxicab vehicle in Mexico City. There the vehicles had become iconic symbols of the city. However, when Mexico passed a law requiring that all taxicabs have four doors, the Beetle’s life came to a screeching halt.

The Rebranding of Volkswagen Beetle

However, as the Beetle was dying in Mexico, Volkswagen was working to resurrect the brand globally. As early as 1991, Volkswagen designers in California were working on a modernized Beetle that would leverage the nostalgia of the brand but marry it with the features, design, and performance that consumers wanted in the 1990s. Volkswagen debuted the new Beetle at the 1994 Detroit Auto Show. The response to the new Beetle was so positive that Volkswagen decided to move ahead with production, and the first new Beetle was manufactured in 1998.

Since the new Beetle came on the scene in 1998, several variations have been introduced such as the sporty Turbo S and the new convertible Beetle. Of course, features have been updated over the years as well to keep the Beetle current and competitive. The excitement, buzz, and publicity surrounding the early days of the new Beetle pushed the brand right back to the cult status it enjoyed during its first 40+ years on the market.

For more about the history of the Volkswagen Beetle, read this story from Edumnds.com, and watch the video below.

Lessons to Learn from Volkswagen Beetle

So what can we learn from the rebranding of Volkswagen which came in the form of a modernized product and a revamped brand promise?

First, brands are inherently emotional. Tapping into nostalgia is a powerful way to develop emotional connections between brands and consumers. Even a new Herbie the Love Bug movie was released after the new Beetle became popular, which brought another level of nostalgia to the brand as adults remembered enjoying the original Love Bug movies as children.

volkswagen beetleSecond, people like to experience brands together, so offering opportunities for brand enthusiasts to share their passion together and enjoy the brand in groups can lift the brand to even higher levels of loyalty and success.

Third, take the time to create a product that is appropriate for your brand and meets the needs and wants of your target audience. When Volkswagen launched the new Beetle, it didn’t happen overnight. The company spent time designing the right car for the right target audience. You need to do your brand research in order to launch a rebranding effort just as you need to do so in order to launch a completely new brand.

Who would have thought the Beetle could not only make a comeback but be so popular in the 21st century? It’s an amazing story of branding the right way! Stay tuned to the AYTM blog for upcoming stories in the Branding the Right Way series.

Images: danzo08, dwstucke, Jeff Sandquist

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Susan Gunelius
Susan Gunelius, MBA is a 25-year marketing and branding expert and President and CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She is the author of 10 books about marketing, branding and social media, and her marketing-related articles appear on top media websites such as Entrepreneur.com and Forbes.com. She is also the Founder and Editor in Chief of WomenOnBusiness.com, an award-winning blog for business women.