How do you convince post-World War II Americans to buy a funny-looking, German-manufactured vehicle named after a bug?
It may not seem like such a difficult feat today — the VW Beetle is iconic, after all, recognized even by children as they shout, “Yellow punch buggy, no punch back!” But in 1959, World War II was fresh in Americans’ minds, and the last thing they wanted was a vehicle that had been known throughout the war as the Nazi car. On top of that, large muscle cars were considered the most fashionable; contrast that to the quirky, small form of the Beetle, and you have a challenge on your hands.
Enter Doyle Dane Bernbach and Volkswagen. Together, these two companies not only succeeded at marketing the small Volkswagen Beetle to Americans, but also changed the landscape of marketing for decades to come with the “Think Small” campaign.
Featuring a small picture of a Beetle surrounded by white negative space, the “Think Small” ads are brutally honest, yet sarcastically so. At the bottom, the copy emphasizes how slow the Beetle is — the very opposite of what you’d expect to see. But then they take that supposedly bad attribute and turn it around into a good one: the Beetle is fuel-efficient. And thus, another Beetle is sold.
What makes these ads so noteworthy is not just that they boosted sales in a difficult market, but also that they helped build brand loyalty. The ad works on multiple levels to suck consumers in, captivate their attention and then surprise them. Plus, the subtle use of “VW” (instead of Volkswagen) helps transform the Beetle from this ugly foreign car to a cute iconic car. Volkswagen was able to start its brand on a clean slate by dissociating from the harsh foreign word to something that’s friendly and easier to say.
To catch people’s attention, Volkswagen placed a tiny image of the Beetle onto a canvas of white. The uniquely clean design helped the ad stand out and get people’s attention. We may be used to seeing ads like this today — Apple, for example, is well-known for its use of negative space and clean design — but at the time, it was revolutionary. Contemporary manufacturers showed off how enjoyable their cars were, depicting smiling families in bright color. “Think Small,” on the other hand, was minimalist in black and white.
Now that Volkswagen has readers’ attention, the automaker holds onto it with the ironic messaging: “Think small.” “Lemon.” “Presenting America’s slowest fastback.” These headlines don’t seem to suggest any positive features. “Why are they belittling themselves in their own ad?” the consumers wondered as they decided to keep reading. And that’s the point — to keep them reading.
It’s the surprise at the end though that seals the deal. By the end of the copy, Volkswagen has turned everything on its head by demonstrating how the supposedly “bad” characteristics are, in fact, good ones. The slow car is actually fuel-efficient and requires fewer repairs. Now why wouldn’t you want a Beetle?
The “Think Small” ads didn’t just sell cars, though. They established a brand. The simple and minimalist design echoed the vehicle itself. Instead of glorifying the vehicle in an ad rooted more in fantasy than reality (like competitors), Volkswagen opted for a more persuasive approach that demonstrated the practical benefits of the Beetle.
The ads also challenged consumers to think differently — sound like Apple, again? The concepts here live on, even in today’s advertising, and that’s what makes this campaign so pivotal in marketing. With “Think Small,” Volkswagen presented a car completely alien from the norm and made people love it.
Instead of giving people what they expected, Volkswagen defined its brand and inspired new wants in the American consumer base. This rejection of the norm would very shortly come to characterize a counter-culture that would permeate American society, as another Beatle-invasion waited on the horizon.
Such a counter-culture lives on, even today. What made this ad so successful in 1959 — a unique design, sarcasm, a challenge to think differently — would still make it successful today. As mentioned above, Apple found huge success with a similar campaign and has cultivated loyalty in much the same way. By emphasizing practical advantages of the Apple product and encouraging consumers to consider an outside-the-box alternative, Apple has shown us just how successful a “Think Small” type of campaign can be even now, 50 years later.
“Throwback Thursday” (#TBT) is Tier10lab’s look back at some of our favorite automotive advertising campaigns. #TBT runs the last Thursday of each month.