Q&A: VW's new marketing chief will 'carry the torch' of cute ads

Vinay Shahani joined VW in November after nine years at Nissan North America.
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Vinay Shahani, the new vice president of marketing at Volkswagen of America, plans to stay the course.

This month, in his first interview since he joined VW in November, Shahani told Automotive News that he does not intend to change VW's motto or its marketing style. And, while he's still learning the lay of the land, he says he's happy with the work coming from the company's outside marketing firms, including its advertising agency of record, Deutsch LA.

Shahani, who spent the past decade at Nissan, says his goal is to do a better job of hammering home those same messages to an American public. He says buyers in the United States still do not have a firm grasp of what VW -- a German brand that tends to charge a premium for its cars, yet aspires to be a mass-market player -- brings to the table.

Also on the top of his agenda: redesigning Volkswagen's Web site to appeal to millennials and older buyers alike, and planning the spring launch of the Golf hatchback.

Shahani, 39, spoke with reporter Gabe Nelson.

You started at the end of last year. How's the new job going?

It's going great, but it's like learning a new language. You spend 10 years at a company, like I did with Nissan, and you learn the players. You learn who to go to, to get X, Y and Z. You understand the jargon. Of course, it's a Japanese company, so there are Japanese cultural norms and ways you get things done.

Then to come to Volkswagen, which is obviously a German company, the processes are different. The players are different. The language is different. It's the same business, so at least I have comfort that I understand fundamentally how the mechanics of the business work -- but you've still got to relearn how to get stuff done. You have to over-rely on the team, and fortunately, I have a great team in place that I can rely on. But it's a great company. I've admired this brand for a long time.

What have you admired about it?

I grew up outside of Detroit, and my father was in the auto industry. So I've been following the market from an early, early age. It sounds cliché to say it, but it's absolutely the truth: I'm a gearhead. I've always tinkered around with cars, and I've loved the VW brand from a young age.

It's a brand that really has a strong enthusiast following, by virtue of the cool products that they've had over time. But more recently, I have admired their consistency from a marketing and communications standpoint. They're known for telling simple human stories that are really cool.

Your father was in the industry?

My father was with Ford, so we were basically in Ford country. I grew up my first 15 years in Dearborn. Then we relocated to Livonia in the mid-'80s, where I went through high school.

Did you have a Volkswagen in the family?

I always drove Fords. I really had no choice in the matter, and I was fine with it. I will never forget, though, that in the early '80s our neighbor had a VW Scirocco. It was a manual transmission. And I thought it was the coolest styled vehicle. Still today it's an enthusiasts' car. It's a driver's car. You take those things for granted, but I think that when you're impressionable and you're young, those things set the tone for you going forward. So I've always held this brand in high esteem.

Which one of VW's recent marketing messaged did you like most, and why?

There's quite a few that stand out in recent years. Certainly, the Super Bowl ad from 2011 -- the Darth Vader one -- was great. But the non-Super Bowl ad that stands out the most to me is called 'Spanish.'

It's a story about two friends that go on a road trip in a Passat TDI. It's a typical VW story. They get in a car, and it's a very human moment; a lot of people can relate to going on a road trip. But the underlying message is about the range of the vehicle, which is enabled by the TDI clean diesel technology. And these guys are in the car for so long, and they don't have to stop for gas because of this engine, that they learn Spanish [from an audiobook] on the way.

I was at Nissan when I saw this ad come out. I remember sitting down with my team and saying: "That is phenomenal." It's such a simple communication. It's such a simple execution. But the underlying message was so clear to the consumer.

I really admire VW's ability to do that globally. As I've spent a couple months here in this organization, I've seen the power of the brand. This is a very long-term oriented organization. I think it's been really well established what the core tenets of this company are, and how we're going to communicate, and this is the tone of voice that we use. It shows, because it's consistent not only here in the U.S. but also globally, and that's quite a statement.

So we shouldn't expect a new voice from Volkswagen?

I don't plan to change the voice. I wouldn't want to. That's something that's been very well established for quite some time. I do think that if you look at our purchase funnel -- the models that we typically use to understand the health of the brand -- I think there's a distinct opportunity to improve the awareness, and specifically the familiarity with, the brand. I think it's pretty clear that many consumers really don't have a clear sense of what we stand for.

And I think that we should continue to challenge ourselves as an organization, to improve our ability to communicate who we are and what we stand for. So it's fine to carry the torch, and to improve upon the consistent, simple, cute human stories. Keep doing that, but at the same time, raise the bar in terms of what we're actually saying about ourselves. We've got German engineering. We've got clean diesel technology, with the majority of the market share in the United States. Those are fundamental things about VW that we need to do a better job of communicating to consumers.

So the VW tagline, "the power of German engineering," is safe?

Absolutely. I have no plans to change that.

You started your career as an engineer. How did get into marketing?

I've been fortunate to have a lot of great opportunities fall into my lap over time. I started my career as a product development engineer, and then I transitioned into very diverse areas of the value chain. I managed a manufacturing engineering team. I worked in sales operations, field sales, product management, marketing communications. Very few people have had the opportunity to get a 360-degree view of how to manage these various aspects of the business.

Getting to the point where I can be VP of marketing for a great brand is one of my proudest accomplishments. I get to do what I love. It's kind of a dream job, and I'm so excited to be here. I think the brand has tremendous potential in the U.S. and I see my goal as helping to unlock that potential.

What was the first Volkswagen you drove?

Believe it or not, the first Volkswagen I ever had the opportunity to drive was the company car that I got when I joined the company. I got a Touareg TDI, which I love.

Your team at Nissan got a lot of attention when it had Amazon.com create a product listing for the new Versa Note, which allowed people to reserve a car online. What was the thinking behind that?

The Amazon deal was groundbreaking, because no other car company had ever embarked on such a deal. The underlying emphasis was trying to figure out new ways to build buzz for a brand, as well as to ensure that we're doing the best we can to reach new customer segments. One of the biggest challenges for any brand today is reaching millennials.

We know that they like to spend a lot of their time doing research on the Internet. I mean, most shoppers do. Eighty-plus percent of people are spending time doing research on the Internet, trying to delay going into the dealership until the last minute. Certainly, we saw the ability to partner with Amazon as a great way to reach them.

To present the product in a way that was no pressure was really important. We did so in a way that was able to really get the buzz out on a new vehicle really fast, and at the same time actually sell some cars, through a cross-promotional tie up with another brand.

Tying up with another brand is really important. You try to do it with brands that you admire. So we were able to accomplish something great when I was with Nissan, and it's my intention to continue to try to do that with Volkswagen.

Where will you begin?

In coming months, we're going to be launching a redesign of our VW.com Web site … We want to provide a non-linear process to the consumer so that if they want to come at it from a price point, they can do that. If they want to look at it from a product standpoint, they can go that way.

When is that redesign going to go live?

Probably in mid- to late-February, I would imagine.

If there's a company in another industry that you emulate for its marketing, what is it?

The one that comes to mind -- and it would probably come to a lot of marketers' minds -- is Apple. Their ability to connect with consumers emotionally is unparalleled. And they're always consistent in their communication. The moment you see an Apple ad, you know who it is. That is a dream for any marketer.

Another one is the insurance company Allstate, with their character Mayhem. What I really admire about that is, they've kind of personified the Murphy's Law things that are going to happen to everybody. And they've done it in a way that is consistent, true to the brand -- they are going to be there for you when these things happen. That's a really creative way to do it. I kind of admire that.

The next big product launch for Volkswagen of America is the Golf hatchback family. What are you planning for the rollout?

We're still in the conceptual phase, so it's a bit premature for me to give you a sense of where we're going. The Golf is an iconic product for us. It's got a wide breadth of product offerings. The challenge is going to be: how do we stay true to the GTI positioning and Golf positioning, while recognizing that the whole family of Golf vehicles is what we need to focus on.

Over the past year, Volkswagen has clearly been moving in a more deal-oriented direction with its marketing. It used to run its zero-down Sign Then Drive event only during the holidays; in 2013, it was available for much of the year. In which direction do you want to take your messaging?

The role of the brand communications is to create an emotional connection with the brand, but the retail communications have to be more rationally focused on the "why buy" elements. What are the unique selling points of our products? Ultimately, when a consumer's in the market, they're looking at rational things to solidify their purchase.

Perhaps this brand has over-relied on the Sign-Then-Drive communications for quite some time. I definitely see us backing off sign-then-drive as a communications message. You're going to see brand communications, but you're going to see retail communications, and we're going to strive for the right balance between the two.

Do you think you'll ever run the Sign-Then-Drive promotion again?

I'm not going to say we're never going to do it again, but we're going to move away from it for some period of time. You always want to have a Sign-Then-Drive offer within your incentive array, but you don't have to make it the foundational element of your communications.

Are you happy with your advertising and digital marketing agencies? Are you thinking of making any changes?

Look, I'm less than two months in. I think [advertising agency of record] Deutsch LA is a great agency, as an example. We have multiple agencies that we work with. But again, I've admired the work that's come out of this brand in recent years. I think they do a great job. So we'll continue to move forward.

When you're new, for the first few months you want to observe, you want to understand what's working, what's not working. At this point I don't have any plans to make any changes in that regard, but I just want to make sure that we're executing our plans. You don't want to reinvent the wheel when a new marketing leader is coming in.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.


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