Learning from Volkswagen’s 1960s ads

Apr 09, 2023

Things are only going to get more competitive, so it’s time to raise the bar with your marketing.

You may not know who Doyle Dane Bernbach was, but if you are of a certain age, you will undoubtedly remember their products. DDB were real life “mad men” of advertising – the creators of the fabulous Volkswagen ads of the 1960s.

The ads were minimalist in a time of excess. If they even showed the car, they did so with no background. One of their most famous print ads was 80 percent blank with no picture of the car, the ad copy reading something to the effect that there was “no point in showing the new Volkswagen because it looked just like the old Volkswagen.”

Then they had a TV commercial set in a snowstorm where the question was raised, “Did you ever wonder how the guy who drives the snow plow gets to his snowplow?” featuring a guy driving a VW Beetle through snow-covered streets to his snow plowing job.

There were many others, too. One showed the car with a headline of “Lemon.” The copy then read that the car didn’t make the boat over to the U.S. because there was a flaw in the paint of its glovebox door.

The point of all of these clever ads was they were completely different from those of all the other auto makers who were out there promoting newer, bigger, faster, and better – everything that conventional wisdom at that time said car buyers wanted.

It got me thinking, could this same philosophy apply to the marketing efforts of an architecture, engineering, or construction firm? The answer is, of course it could!

One could start their marketing messaging with a premise that “everyone wants cheaper,” but when it comes to hiring a firm in our business, “cheapest fee” does not necessarily get the finished product that is the lowest cost to build, or one that holds up the best over time, or one that has the lowest operational costs.

Or one could talk about how “faster is better,” unless, that is, a rushed effort to push a project through city planning without doing all of the necessary steps and homework on the part of the AEC firm results in a rejection and a lack of permit, in which case a more thorough and studied approach (along with some success statistics for permitting applications) would ultimately be better for the client.

Then one could get into “quality,” and raise the question of whether the client wants frame-able drawings of the project to hang in their office, or would they rather be sitting in the new office itself? While one AEC firm is worried about line weights and perfect-looking drawings, the other is creating plans and specs that contractors can actually understand to bid on and build from, because they are more complete.

Other marketing campaigns could be designed to point out that a well-managed organization should want to deal with a well-managed AEC firm, and this message would provide an opportunity to discuss practices such as shared business planning and open-book management, among others, that your AEC firm is using when most others are not.

“Specialization” is another topic that would be fun to address. There would be all kinds of opportunities there to raise the question of which doctor you would want for your shoulder replacement. The general practice physician who works at the local walk-in clinic, or someone who has successfully replaced a thousand or more shoulders? Well, the same logic applies to your AEC service providers. Not all firms are equal. We – who are specialized in doing this stuff and do it every day – will be more likely to do things right and avoid problems.

I could go on and on here. My point is, however, that even if the only benefits any of us can provide to our clients are to be “cheaper, faster, and better,” we could most certainly come up with some more creative ideas on how to get that message across that would make us and our businesses more successful.

Times are going to get tougher and things are going to be more competitive. Raise the bar with your marketing. Don’t be afraid to be different. Sometimes less is more. Don’t be like everyone else. Don’t jump on every band wagon. Don’t be a lemming!

VW sold more than 23 million air-cooled Beetles using this approach. Doesn’t that tell you something? 

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter!

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.