When Deutsch LA competed for Volkswagen of America's advertising account in November 2009, the ad agency was considered the underdog.
Since then, it has become a leading automotive marketer -- partly thanks to dogs.
During this year's Super Bowl, Deutsch delivered a blockbuster follow-up to its Darth Vader-themed 2011 Super Bowl spot by using a dozen dogs barking for a 60-second rendition of the "Imperial March."
Both Star Wars-themed commercials have put Deutsch LA front and center in the ad community and raised the marketing game for VW.
The commercials -- "The Force" and "The Bark Side" -- exploded across millions of YouTube screens. VW has never looked back. The brand's year-over-year sales are up 38 percent through August and social media buzz is growing for a marque that wants to attract younger buyers.
Special Correspondent Julie Halpert spoke with Deutsch LA CEO Mike Sheldon, 52, about his agency's plans to continue the momentum.
Q: You came from Chiat/Day where you worked on the Nissan and Infiniti accounts. How does your Volkswagen message differ from those of Nissan and Infiniti?
A: So much of car advertising is the same. It all blends together. That's because a lot of car brands don't have a clear point of view about who they are. It's hard to get a sense of what a Nissan is. With VW, it's the opposite. We have this incredibly soulful brand and each one of the models is an expression of that, so it's a richer tapestry to work with. Everybody has a VW story. VW is a part of the fabric of this country, so our mission is to take that insight and apply it to modern everyday life.
What are VW's marketing priorities for the coming year?
We'll be talking a lot about new models, the 2013 Beetle cabriolet and Jetta hybrid. VW has long been known for the Beetle and Jetta, but as the Tiguan and other models came along, people started to get a sense that VW actually has SUVs and hybrids. We want to get across the idea that this is a full-line manufacturer that has a broad spectrum of really cool cars.
How do you convey that most effectively?
Last year, we put in place 18 months' worth of advertising, generally unheard of in the car business. What that allowed us to do was really hone in on what the brand stands for and then let each piece of communication express that belief in a slightly different way. Having an overall brand theme with each vehicle an expression of it allows you to always be selling a particular model but also enhancing the brand. It offers consistency. A Jetta spot will feel very much like a Tiguan.
If I look at Chevy's work now, it's all over the place. The ads don't seem like they're related to each other and the tag line doesn't hold the campaign together. A consumer has to understand who you are as a brand and you have to stick with that.
When you won the account, then-VW vice president Tim Ellis discussed his goal to evolve the brand to woo Toyota and Honda buyers. How has your marketing tried to do this?
For the longest time, people thought of German engineering as expensive and unattainable. VW repriced a lot of their vehicles for an American market. Knowing they can get a German-engineered car for the price of a common Japanese car has been a very powerful punch. We'll capitalize on that in our ads, including price points and lease rates.
Do you plan to advertise in the next Super Bowl?
We do plan to advertise in the Super Bowl again. We got well over $150 million in value for the price of a Super Bowl spot because people thought "The Force" was original and they shared it with others.