Q&A: VINAY SHAHANI

Revamped VW site plays matchmaker

Vinay Shahani, vice president of marketing for Volkswagen Group of America: "In many cases, customers are open to different types of vehicles. You don't want to restrict them."
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When the Volkswagen brand decided to redesign its Web site, Vinay Shahani's marketing team looked to online dating for inspiration.

Most car company Web sites send customers down a funnel, from vehicle type to nameplate to trim level, until they end up with a fully configured car. That approach is orderly, but the results don't necessarily reflect customers' priorities, says Shahani, 40, who took over as VW of America's vice president of marketing in late 2013.

The new vw.com, which launched in late April, lets customers choose what they care about, just as visitors to matchmaking sites can sort by age, hobbies, religion, ethnicity or whatever matters to them.

"Let's say you're interested in finding a vehicle that costs less than $30,000, has Bluetooth and comes in red," Shahani says. "We let you define those characteristics upfront."

The fresh Web site is part of a revitalized marketing approach for VW, which is reworking many of its strategies to support its goal of becoming a large, mainstream brand in the United States, like Honda or Toyota. At the New York auto show in April, Shahani spoke with Staff Reporter Gabe Nelson about how Volkswagen is shaking things up in 2014.

Q: You're about to launch the redesigned Golf. What's your strategy?

A: For the first time, we're really treating it as a family of Golf vehicles, trying to sustain momentum over the entire year. We're starting with the GTI [in June], followed by the Golf and Golf TDI [in August], followed by the e-Golf in the fall. Then, in early 2015, we have the Golf SportWagen and the Golf R.

We're in the midst of working on the first of the variants, which is the GTI. We'll kick off the communications in June. You should expect to hear about the performance of the vehicle in the campaign, and it's not about 0-to-60 fast. It's about nimble, it's about versatility, it's about the precision you get with German engineering. The advertising will kick off in earnest with the World Cup in June, which is a great forum. If you look at who's watching the World Cup and who buys a GTI, there's a great alignment there.

You've talked about changing your Tier 2 advertising. Why?

We've got to sell cars in the U.S. That's an overarching thing that I've tried to do as I've come in: get the marketing focused on the brand, but also selling cars. Our Tier 2 communications are going to be very focused on the product and the value story.

We've made some major changes in the way we approach retail communications. You may have seen some of the new ads: They're consistent with each other in terms of the background, in terms of the spokesperson.

There's a real close focus on the product attributes and where we have class-leading claims -- things that are aligned with drivers of consideration. We're less focused on the humor, and less focused on being cute, because we don't think that's what we need to be talking about at Tier 2.

Why did you decide to use a spokesman?

This guy [comedian Matt Gourley] is a great spokesperson for us because he comes across as credible and intelligent, and he tells the story about the product. We really wanted that. We don't think that doing a Sign Then Drive event for seven, eight, nine months out of 12 is the right story for us. This is a mix of events and product, and you know, we felt that this was the right way to go.

How are you funding the new Tier 2 advertising?

Up until April, we were the only manufacturer that didn't have a cooperative advertising program, where the dealers contribute a certain amount of funds to local-market advertising. In the history of VW, they had done it before, but they walked away from it. Now, we're back into it. Our deal was, we wanted to make it incremental, so we kept the level of funding that we did, and on top of that, the dealers are coming in, and we'll match those funds as well.

Have you already funded a program for any cities or regions?

It's still too early. We just launched the program, and we're in the process of enrolling our dealers.

You ran a TDI Clean Diesel sales event in March and April, offering a $1,000 fuel card to customers who buy one of your diesel models. Has it worked?

The early indications have been positive. We've seen a dramatic lift in consideration of our diesel models, and what I'd call a halo that glows over the non-TDI vehicles as well. The lift in Web site visits, year-over-year and month-over-month, was spectacular.

Would you repeat it?

We want to ... see what it drove in terms of incremental business. We'll decide whether it was successful.

Where do you stand in your redesign of vw.com?

We're moving away from the typical OEM Web site, which is a glorified brochure, and making sure our site is there for what customers need it for -- which is shopping.

I have to give credit to my digital team at Volkswagen, as well as at the agency. They looked at the functionality that exists in the matchmaking field, with online dating. It's about pairing up two people who are a perfect match. We see the match between a person and his or her vehicle as analogous. It's about making sure that we define a process that allows a consumer to start wherever they want to start.

How does that work?

The traditional model is, you start with a category of vehicles. You narrow it down to a nameplate. Then you narrow it down to a trim level. Then you narrow it down with the options that exist. In the end, you configure a vehicle that meets your needs, and you have to go find that vehicle.

Our process is nonlinear. Let's say you're interested in finding a vehicle that costs less than $30,000, has Bluetooth and comes in red. We let you define those characteristics upfront because multiple categories of vehicles and multiple nameplates in the lineup could match your criteria.

The vehicle that is a perfect match for you has its own unique profile page. It has a VIN associated with it, and it says it exists in this dealer's lot, so the consumer can find it -- in less keystrokes and clicks than it would have taken in the old process.

Why do it this way?

In many cases, customers are open to different types of vehicles. You don't want to restrict them. You want to offer a process that's going to show them the array of vehicles and vehicle types that could meet their needs.

Will a person really come to the site looking for a Golf and end up in an SUV?

I've seen that throughout my career. You have a consumer who comes in for a small sedan and walks out the door with a small SUV. That's not to say all customers will be that flexible, but in many cases, consumers have a budget and there are multiple vehicles that can meet their needs within that budget. We've got to recognize that. We want to give customers a shopping experience that caters to what they want.

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