VW ads: Same voice, with a more German accent

Shahani: “I don't plan to change the voice.”

Despite a year-end shuffle that left Volkswagen of America with a new CEO and marketing boss, don't expect VW to change its brand identity.

So says Vinay Shahani, 39, who was hired from Nissan in November to help VW, the No. 1 car brand in Europe, hit the right notes in its quest to become a Tier 1 brand in the United States.

In an interview last week, Shahani said he does not intend to mess with the advertising formula that VW refined under his predecessor, Tim Mahoney. That formula produced such hits as the 2011 Super Bowl spot "The Force," starring a child dressed as Darth Vader. Shahani calls them "humorous, simple, cute human stories," and he likes them.

"I don't plan to change the voice," he told Automotive News in his first interview since becoming vice president of VW brand marketing. "I wouldn't want to. That's something that's been very well established for quite some time."

That might not sit well with VW's U.S. dealers, who are pushing Shahani for more sales-oriented marketing. VW brand sales fell 7 percent in 2013, a disappointing setback after the marque doubled U.S. sales from 2009 to 2012. Dealers say VW ads should be issuing "calls to action" -- that is, messages that give consumers a reason to buy now.

"That's the message that we as a council have been trying to send to VW," says Jimmy Ellis, an Atlanta dealer with three VW stores and chairman of the Volkswagen National Dealer Advisory Council. "It's not that the creative has been bad. It's just that we need to evolve for the current conditions that we're in."

Marketing Mind: Vinay Shahani
Vice president of Volkswagen brand marketing, Volkswagen of America
Age: 39
Previous job: Director of Nissan brand marketing, Nissan North America
Hometown: Dearborn, Mich.
Favorite Volkswagen model: Scirocco. "What an aggressive stance with performance to match. It's an awesome vehicle."
Nonauto brand he admires: Apple. "The moment you see an Apple ad, you know who it is. That is a dream for any marketer."

Shahani has something else in mind. His goal is to drill the VW brand's German-engineered pedigree into the hearts and minds of Americans, many of whom "really don't have a clear sense of what we stand for," he says.

To fix that, he says, VW will tweak its marketing this year to focus more heavily on the attributes of its products -- especially TDI diesel engines. VW sold 95,823 diesel-fueled cars in 2013, accounting for more than half the diesels sold industrywide.

Shahani says he has no desire to change the brand's tag line: "The Power of German Engineering." In fact, the spot that VW plans to air during next month's Super Bowl will focus on the automaker's quality-obsessed but quirky German engineers.

Shahani, who grew up the son of a Ford Motor Co. employee, is himself an engineer, with a graduate degree from Stanford University to go along with his business degree. Earlier in his career, he was a product development engineer, managed a team of manufacturing engineers and did a stint in field sales -- a background that he says gives him a rare "360-degree view" of how a car gets from sketch pad to showroom.

"I've been fortunate to have a lot of great opportunities fall into my lap," he says.

The latest opportunity came when Mahoney left VW in February to become Chevrolet's global marketing chief. Mahoney deputy Kevin Mayer held the top marketing job for a few months, but left VW in the fall.

Shahani says one of the biggest challenges for VW, as with most brands, is reaching millennial consumers. Volkswagen of America is redesigning its Web site, vw.com, to better appeal to that demographic group, he says.

He also has shown a willingness to try some unusual ways to get young buyers' attention.

For one of his last campaigns at Nissan, Shahani's team wrote a product listing for the new Versa Note on amazon.com. Customers were allowed to reserve the small hatchback online, with a promise that at least one of the buyers would have the car packed into an Amazon shipping box for delivery.

When one such box was delivered on a flatbed truck last week in Madison, Wis., bearing the Amazon and Nissan logos, someone snapped a photo and posted it on the Internet. It became the object of fascination on Web sites such as reddit.com that are popular with young buyers -- a key demographic for the low-priced Versa Note.

Shahani says it worked because Amazon is a trusted retailer and the Versa Note was showcased "in a way that was no-pressure."

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com

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