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Think Small

By Bruce Wiseman

The rent-a-cop directing traffic in the Whole Foods parking lot had the chiseled features of his Incan Ancestors.

And what ancestors they were.

Inca warriors stormed over tribal adversaries in Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Bolivia, Chile and Northeastern Argentina. The mighty Empire of the Sun thrived for hundreds of years and stretched almost the entire length of Western South America. They were fearless, matchless and the masters of the continent.

A wave of sadness washed over me seeing this son of the Andes standing in a parking lot in Los Angeles directing traffic. But as I watched him, he smiled proudly as he motioned a Mercedes to hold while he directed a Prius out of a parking slot and then directed the Mercedes to take to its place.

He probably had a grateful wife and a couple of kids that played soccer. Hell, he may not know Machu Picchu from Pasadena.

Musings of an organic food shopper.

I got to my car and put my groceries in the trunk. As I backed out of my parking place I noticed the silver sedan to my left. I liked the lines but couldn’t tell what kind of car it was.

As I pulled away I glanced at the emblem on the trunk. It was a VW.


A VW has the small position in my mind. It’s a Beetle, a bug. It’s not a 4 door sedan.

How could this happen?

Volkswagen hit the U.S. auto market in the 50s and was a stunning success in a matter of a few years. This was accomplished by its efficiency, superb economy and by a brilliant advertising campaign by Doyle, Dane and Bernbach in what has been recognized by AD AGE as the best ad campaign of the 20th century: Think Small.

This is a position.

This is a focus.

“A brand becomes stronger when you narrow its focus.” Al Ries and Laura Ries, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.

In the savagely competitive U.S. automobile market of the 1960s when many American built cars looked like Intergalactic Federation Battle Cruisers, here comes this low cost European import that takes a brilliant “against” position – Small.

The result?

VW’s U.S. sales grew to a jaw dropping 569,696 cars in 1970 when Volkswagen captured 7 percent of the U.S. car market and had over a thousand American dealerships.

Can I get an Amen!

So what did Volkswagen do?

Of course. In 1975, They replaced the Beetle with the “Golf”, and then extended the brand to include Rabbits and Passats, Jettas and…

Over the next two decades, Volkswagen sales fell an eye-watering 90%, hitting bottom in 1993 with fewer than 50,000 cars sold. As of 2007, there were only 596 operating VW dealerships in the United States.

What were these guys smoking?

I don’t want to get dark here, but this was more than marketing stupidity, it was sabotage.

Finally, someone at VW emerged as the victor from the anti-branding war they must have been having at corporate and reintroduced the Beetle in 1998. By 2001, they’d had their best sales year in two decades.

That’s a plus, but at this point there are 12 different models of VWs and today the brand’s position is…er…eh…

The lesson is a simple one: keep your brand narrowly focused. If you are going to introduce a new product, give it its own brand and position.

Look what Toyota did when they wanted to create a luxury brand, they created Lexus with it’s own dealership network, advertising, etc.

This doesn’t mean you can’t offer other items – Starbucks means coffee, but they generate $1.5 billion a year from food items.

Gillette means razor blade, but they generate billions in shaving cream and deodorant sales.

Fed Ex means overnight, but you can select a number of different delivery speeds.

And On Target Research means surveys but we can also help you streamline your marketing program and narrow the focus of your brand so your sales soar and your cash register sings.

All it takes is a phone call or click of a mouse.