Volkswagen dealers are asking top U.S. executives to tweak their marketing strategy, saying that the brand's lighthearted marketing has gotten customers' attention, but that it could do a better job of moving metal.
A shift to more "tactical" marketing could compensate for an aging lineup and soften the VW brand's recent sales slump, says Jimmy Ellis, a VW dealer with three stores in the Atlanta area and chairman of the Volkswagen National Dealer Advisory Council.
"That's the message that we as a council have been trying to send to VW," Ellis says. "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."
Volkswagen took a cheerful tack under its former chief marketing officer, Tim Mahoney, rattling off a string of award-winning advertisements such as "The Force," a Super Bowl spot that drew tens of millions of views on YouTube. His team often pushed against the rules of the business, airing TV commercials such as "Smiles" -- a 30-second spot that showed a series of people laughing, but did not show a single car.
Dealers were never thrilled. Any luster on the marketing strategy wore off in 2013, when VW brand sales fell 7 percent. Mahoney left VW last spring to become global marketing chief for Chevrolet.
VW then started to more aggressively advertise VW's financing and lease rates, but Ellis says the message could still be better.
"What I haven't seen enough of is a real call to action, a real reason for someone to come in and drive one of these vehicles," he says.
Ellis said he hopes that the new vice president of marketing, Vinay Shahani, will move the ad message in that direction. Shahani came to VW from Nissan in November, as VW parted ways with Mahoney's former deputy, Kevin Mayer.
Mark McNabb, COO of Volks- wagen of America, said this month that VW plans a new marketing campaign at the beginning of this year to emphasize the benefits of the features in its cars -- especially its TDI diesel engines.