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Why VW decided to reference its scandal in its new electric-car ad campaign

Johannes Leonardo cofounder and chief creative Leo Premutico outlines the approach and strategy to bring the brand out of its self-inflicted darkness.

Why VW decided to reference its scandal in its new electric-car ad campaign
[Image: courtesy of Volkswagen]

Volkswagen’s newest commercial starts with the Simon & Garfunkel refrain “Hello darkness, my old friend . . . .” and ends with its own line, “In the darkness, we found the light. Introducing a new era of electric driving.” As bookends for the new spot, they also represent the carmaker’s strategy to directly address the ongoing problems stemming from a diesel emissions scandal that began in 2015 in order to move on from it.

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[Image: courtesy of Volkswagen]
Okay, well, “directly address” is relative in corporate branding, but certainly almost four years on, no one would’ve expected VW to bring it up. For the agency responsible for the new campaign, New York-based Johannes Leonardo, the goal is to bring VW’s brand back to prominence in culture, the same way memorable–and historically successful–campaigns like “Lemon” and “Drivers Wanted” once did.

“What both those campaigns did was give Volkswagen a significant role in culture,” says agency cofounder and chief creative officer Leo Premutico. “The closer we got to the pitch presentation, we realized it needed a clearing-of-the-air moment. We needed an idea that was going to help the company turn the page and move forward.”

[Image: courtesy of Volkswagen]
The campaign’s print ads strike much the same tone, overtly referencing that famous 1960 “Lemon” ad with one simply saying “Lemonade.” Another says, “After the bad buzz, here’s a better one.”

Premutico says that the campaign isn’t an apology per se, but an acknowledgement that is aimed at more than just potential car buyers. “There was a need to clear the air both externally and internally, and will be just as important within the organization as it will be useful for consumers,” he says.

Volkswagen has committed to being carbon neutral by 2050, and it is building an $800 million assembly plant expansion in Chattanooga, Tennessee to build electric vehicles. Of course, its path to electric wasn’t exactly self-propelled: VW agreed to spend $2 billion on electric-vehicle infrastructure as part of a 2016 settlement with the U.S. government.

“It was important for us that this was a commercial with substance,” says Premutico of the decision to follow a single designer, toiling away, going from creative frustration to the reveal of the electric microbus model ID Buzz, first shown off back in 2017. “It’s a story about what has happened as a result of this tough moment for the company.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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