fbpx

#021: VW Beetle – Hippies Endorse THE German MAN

How many people can you fit in a Volkswagen Beetle, the people’s car? The current world record is 20. Designed by Porsche, commissioned by Hitler, marketed by a Jewish agency, and adopted by the Hippies. The crazy story of the success of the Beetle and marketing used in the US market.

Dave Young:

Welcome to the Empire Builders Podcast, teaching business owners the not-so-secret techniques that took famous businesses from mom and pop to major brands. Stephen Semple is a marketing consultant, story collector, and storyteller. I’m Stephen’s sidekick and business partner Dave Young. Before we get into today’s episode, a word from our sponsor, which is, well it’s us, but we’re highlighting ads we’ve written and produced for our clients, so here’s one of those.

[Royal Plumbing Ad]

Dave Young:

Stephen, when I was a kid there were all kinds of people, they were doing contests like see how many people you can cram into a phone booth, and another one was how many people can you cram into a Volkswagen Beetle? This is back in the sixties and seventies.

Stephen Semple:

It was like the clown car.

Dave Young:

Exactly, it was like, how many high school kids can we cram into this tiny little car? And then there were people that would disassemble them and put them back together inside the high school, or upon the roof.

Stephen Semple:

That’s right.

Dave Young:

So when you said what you said today you wanted to talk about the story of Volkswagen I’m like cool, that little car has so many stories.

Stephen Semple:

And here’s the crazy thing about Volkswagen, about the Beetle, This was a car that was dreamt up by Adolf Hitler.

Dave Young:

Oh God, yeah.

Stephen Semple:

That was promoted by a Jewish advertising agency and adapted by hippies.

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

How was that even possible? It’s a crazy story. And the other thing that’s amazing about the Beetle, the Beetle did something that had never been done before, and hasn’t been repeated again since, is that it beat the Model T Ford as the most produced car ever. And we think about Volkswagen as this big multinational business, but we’re going to go right back to the early days, because the story of the Beetle, I mean a movie should be made.

Dave Young:

In German, it’s people’s car, people’s wagon, right? That’s volks is-

Stephen Semple:

Yeah, it’s the people’s car.

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

Exactly right, exactly right. But the whole idea started before World War II, and we’re going to go really back into those days, even before it was a car. When you think about this being an icon of the counter culture, it’s almost unbelievable. So Hitler was a big car buff, he was a really big car buff, and the idea of that Volkswagen was created by Adolf Hitler. And what he saw in Germany at the time, so this is pre-World War II, this is between World War I and World War II, that cars were only for rich people in Germany, and he wanted to make material things available to the everyday person, this was one of his goals.

Stephen Semple:

And so before the war, what Hitler saw when he looked to the US is he saw a higher standard of living when he looked at the US, he saw inexpensive consumer items, radios, TVs, refrigerators, cars were owned by regular everyday folks. And he was a big admirer of Henry Ford.

Dave Young:

That was a mutual relationship, wasn’t it?

Stephen Semple:

That was a mutual relationship, a lot of people forget that it was a mutual relationship. And in 1927, 80% of all cars owned were owned by Americans.

Dave Young:

Oh wow, okay.

Stephen Semple:

80% of all cars were owned by Americans in 1927. So Hitler wanted a car for the people, that’s what he wanted to do. He hired Ferdinand Porsche, yes, that Porsche.

Dave Young:

That guy.

Stephen Semple:

To design a car, but he wanted something that was affordable and reliable. And so Ferdinand Porsche came up with the design for the Beetle, that’s what he created, and Hitler named it Volkswagen, people’s car.

Dave Young:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stephen Semple:

They actually had gone so far as to build a factory to build cars, and it was actually, at the time, the biggest factory in the world, just south of Berlin. The factory’s still there today and operational making Volkswagens. So production was planned to start in 1939, that was when it was planned, and then oops.

Dave Young:

Then other things happened.

Stephen Semple:

A couple of other things happened, including this little thing called World War II comes marching along. So the war broke out and the factory was immediately switched to the building of weapons.

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

Immediately switched to the building of weapons. In fact, slave labor was used to build weapons in this factory.

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

And the interesting thing is you can do a tour of that factory today and there are even walls that are still up that show that shrapnel, and all this other stuff. Following the war, as we all know there was the Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of Europe, Germany needed to rebuild. And Ivan Hirst was a British officer who was involved in reconstruction, and he dusted off the plans for the Beetle. He came across these plans, dusted them off, and said, you know what? Germany needs jobs, Germany needs vehicles, in fact, we need vehicles in Germany to help with the reconstruction efforts, and so Ivan Hirst convinced the allies it was a good idea, let’s make this car. So they started to build the car, and the first 20,000 vehicles were purchased by the ally military because they’re inexpensive, they were fuel-efficient, and they were easy to repair.

Dave Young:

So we win the war, our first step is we start buying German cars.

Stephen Semple:

Start buying German cars and the reconstruction effort start to make cars. What then ended up happening is regular Germans started buying these cars for the same reasons. Cars were inexpensive, fuel-efficient, easy to repair, all great things. In the late 1940s the allies handed the plant, the plans, everything back over to the German government, said, here you go, run with this. So they started to look outside of Germany, and in 1949 they sold the first two Beetles in the United States. So two Beetles got sold into the US market. And through the 1950s they started to ramp up in sales, and the real appeal was the simplicity and the appearance, it was a fun-looking little car.

Dave Young:

It was unique, yeah.

Stephen Semple:

Here’s where my head starts to hurt, is in the US the Beetles’ success was very much the branding of it and how it became a symbol of the counterculture. And I want you to think about this, this started happening in the 1950s, and the 1950s is only 10 years after the end of the war. So 10 years before this was a vehicle of Adolf Hitler, being made in a plant that was using concentration camp people to manufacture weapons. Only 10 years before, it wasn’t like this was forgotten history.

Dave Young:

Yeah, yeah.

Stephen Semple:

This is recent damn history. What they wanted to do, though, is they wanted to get an ad that created attention, how they create attention for this new little German car. And this is really where the lesson for today sits, is how they got attention. Car ads at the time, car ads in the 1950s.

Dave Young:

Oh my gosh, yeah.

Stephen Semple:

Were all illustrated, they were all paint brushed, they all made the cars look longer and wider than in reality.

Dave Young:

You look at those ads, the cars felt huge.

Stephen Semple:

The cars felt enormous. The people were painted in and made smaller, and the cars were all set in opulent surroundings.

Dave Young:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Stephen Semple:

They were marketed as a token of success, that’s how they were marketed, and all of the American car manufacturers advertised their cars this way. Volkswagen came along and broke every rule in the category.

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

They took out a full-page article in Life Magazine, a full-page ad, with a tiny, teeny tiny little photo, and actually, we’ll have examples of these ads in the show notes on the website. Tiny photo, so it was a photo, not illustrated, tiny Beetle, most of the ad blank space with the tagline, “Think small.” But it felt small, especially in context. Beside one of those other ads, it feels small today, and if you looked at it in the context of that, it feels minuscule. It was so different, it was so shocking, it had never been seen, it felt like something completely else.

VW Beetle Think Small Ad

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

If you go to empirebuildersprogram.com, we’ll have examples of those ads there. But it’s so nuts and it’s so crazy. Have you ever seen the show Mad Men, Dave?

Dave Young:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), oh absolutely, yeah.

Stephen Semple:

Yeah, so Mad Men’s is a show about advertising.

Dave Young:

Ad guys in the sixties.

Stephen Semple:

Ad guys in the sixties. What I have to share today is a clip from Mad Men where they actually make fun of the Volkswagen advertisement, I’m going to share this with you.

Dave Young:

Okay.

Speaker 4:

Remember to think small? It was a half-page ad at a full-page buy, you can barely see the product.

Don Draper:

Well, say what you want, love it or hate it, the fact remains, we’ve been talking about this for the last 15 minutes.

Stephen Semple:

Right?

Dave Young:

That’s it, right.

Stephen Semple:

So it was iconic enough that it’s made it into Mad Men. But when they did these ads they really leaned into it. Even the radio ads, and I’ve got a couple of radio ads I’m going to share with you of the time, leaned into this idea of small. So here’s the radio ads that were running at the time.

[Get a Bug Ad]

You’ve gotten somewhere, get a big, beautiful chariot, but if you simply want to get somewhere, get a Bug.

[Automatic Stick Shift Ad]

Is this a wildly expensive plaything, a toy for the idle rich? No, just a humble little Bug with a new option called the automatic stick shift.

Stephen Semple:

Right? So they leaned into this whole idea of being completely, utterly opposite to what everyone else was doing, and stood out like crazy from this. And these ads just really jump off the page, and they were created by Doyle Dane Bernbach, DDB, which was, as I said, a Jewish advertising agency promoting Hitler’s little car to the counterculture.

Dave Young:

So there’s an Australian saying, and forgive me for using this, but they’ll look at something like this and say, “Well that stands out like dogs balls,” and the fact that in that Mad Men clip, you’ve got Don Draper pointing out to the guy that’s complaining about the ad that we’ve been talking about that ad for 15 minutes, so the key there is that that advertising got people’s attention, it got people talking about that car.

Dave Young:

And for podcast listeners, if you want to go back and listen to the ad that we put at the very beginning of this episode, we play one of our own clients’ ads at the beginning of each episode, that’s an ad for my client, it took me over a year to get him to record it, and we’ve only had it on the air for one day because he’s been afraid of it, but it stands out and it entertains, and it’s for a boring business, he’s a plumber, but he’s talking about something that just makes people talk about him.

Stephen Semple:

Right.

Dave Young:

And that’s the goal, right? You want people to think about you. You want to shoot for fame, if nothing else. This car became famous for being different than everything else.

Stephen Semple:

Best selling car of all time.

Dave Young:

Now I grew up in a little town in western Nebraska, 6,000 people, that had all the typical car dealers, we had Ford, Chevy, Chrysler, Dodge, there were half a dozen individual dealers that didn’t have the full line, but they were all American made cars, there was no import place. There was a middle aged woman that babysat for my sisters and I every now and then, this is when we were maybe nine or 10 years old, so late sixties, early seventies. She had a bright red Volkswagen Beetle. I don’t know where she got it, you couldn’t get it in that town. She went somewhere else to get it because she loved the idea of it, she could afford it. It was my very first experience with a Beetle, either riding in it or seeing one, and it’s memorable to this day. I remember what it was like to ride in her Beetle, she would drop us off at school, or do whatever it is, running around needed to be done, and it was such a cool, unique little car. But it didn’t feel like anything my parents ever had.

Stephen Semple:

Right. But the key in all of this, the lesson here is to stand out, but to stand out you need to be aware of the context of what’s going on.

Dave Young:

Stay tuned, we’re going to wrap up this story and tell you how to apply this lesson to your business right after this.

[Empire Builders Program Ad]

Dave Young:

Let’s pick up our story where we left off, and trust me, you haven’t missed a thing.

Stephen Semple:

To stand out you need to be aware of the context of what’s going on. So great example is when the pandemic first happened, everybody was like, “Due to COVID19, due to COVID19,” shut the fuck up, I’m tired of hearing it. Or, we’re now announcing curbside. So we’ll also put an ad in the show notes of an example of how we promoted for our client curbside without talking about curbside, so it sounded different. Because as soon as everything sounds the same it’s like same, same, same, same, same, same, same.

[Curbside Ad]

Dave Young:

Exactly.

Stephen Semple:

And a great example, I’ll tell you a funny story of another client, so Armadura Metal Roofing, when they first hired us they asked us to do a trade show booth for them. And this was one to industry, so it was to the roofing industry. And if you’ve ever gone to an industry trade show booth, the booths are all super colorful, and it was to roofers, all pictures of roofs, long lists of features and benefits, bright bowls with win an iPhone, loud, loud, loud. And so basically you feel like you’re walking through four hours of advertising when you walk through one of those trade shows.

Stephen Semple:

So they came to us and they said, “We want you to do a trade show booth.” I said, “All right, great. What’s the most important thing?” They said, “Our shingle is so great that if we can get the shingle in the hands of the roofer, they buy it, it they love it.” I said, “Great, so success is getting in the hands, okay, great. So here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to do a trade show booth, black booth, white lettering, no branding, no pictures, no name, no nothing, Single statement, and it’s a question, what’s wrong with this shingle?”

Armadura Metal Roof Trade Show Booth

Stephen Semple:

They confessed to me later that they were really disappointed because they were expecting something big and bold and colorful and really out there, and we come back with this thing of, oh no, none of that. Fancy font? No, plain font, plain font. It really stood out. And this is what they discovered, they were like, “I can’t believe how much our little 10 by 10 booth stood out because it had nothing but this intriguing question, people would come up to them and go, “Well, what’s wrong with the shingle?” And they would go, “I don’t know, you tell me,” and they’d hand it to them. Boom, it’s in their hands.

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

Studying it closely, and they go, “This is a pretty cool shingle.” But the point is, one of our problems often, especially when we’re picking billboards and trade show booths, and things like that, we look at it on our computer screen.

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

Focusing on it, not realizing, well wait a minute, what is onto the right? And what is to the left? That’s what I need to stand out from. In Beetles case, what’s the Buick ad, what’s the Chrysler ad, what’s the Ford ad? Oh wow, they’re all doing this? I’m going way over here. So it’s about understanding context and pivoting hard against it.

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

And being open to criticism. Because I can tell you the dealers would’ve all been saying to them exactly that Mad Men conversation, “You’re not showing the product, it’s so tiny.” We’re telling people it’s tiny, well guess what? It’s tiny, own it, embrace it, love it.

Dave Young:

Going back to Volkswagen, the easiest thing in the world would’ve been for a German factory to say, oh well let’s build 57 Chevys, which seems to be popular.

Stephen Semple:

Right, let’s do what everybody else is doing, let’s follow the leader. Our constant theme in this podcast is don’t follow the leader, do something different, and then guess what? You become the leader, which they did.

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

They crushed a record that none of these car companies, including Ford itself, had ever been able to repeat, and they did it with the Beetle.

Dave Young:

Yeah.

Stephen Semple:

Hitler’s car with a Jewish advertising agency accepted by a counter-culture, it’s crazy.

Dave Young:

And so the ad tag thinks small, think small wasn’t the secret, it was think different, It was be different.

Stephen Semple:

And small happened to be that big differentiator, because everybody else was making their stuff, as you said, artificially large, they owned large, so Beetle went, let’s own small.

Dave Young:

Thanks for listening to the podcast. Please share us, subscribe on your favorite podcast app, and leave us a big fat juicy five-star rating and review at Apple Podcasts. And if you’d like to schedule your own 90 minute Empire Buildings session, you can do it at empirebuildingprogram.com.

Scroll to Top