Volkswagen’s Autostadt (car city), which opened at the beginning of June, takes the concept of brand experience to a new level.
The 60-acre park, close to the company’s main manufacturing site at Wolfsburg near Hanover, comprises a visitor reception centre, auto museum and pavilions representing each of the group’s marques: Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Skoda, Seat and Volkswagen.
The park’s opening coincides with Expo 2000 in Hanover, which should help to boost first-year visitor numbers, but the plan is to run the facility for at least ten years.
“We already had a distribution centre at the factory site,” says Karl Andreas Roeren, director of brand management and marketing strategy at VW, referring to the fact that 50 to 60 per cent of German customers collect their cars from the factory.
“We decided this created a wonderful opportunity to present the brand values of the whole group for the first time. In some respects, the VW Group is a theoretical financial construction – it is the individual brands that have the life, rather than the group as a whole.
“So we saw an opportunity to demonstrate the spirit of the entire group, using the pavilions to reflect the values of the various brands and to show how different they are. This would work only if the park was fun and interesting, so we didn’t want to simply show corporate credentials. The objective is not to try to sell cars to the visitor – hopefully, this will come about in the longer-term through an appreciation of the brand values.”
British design consultancy Furneaux Stewart was a key contributor to the project and was responsible for the contents of two pavilions. It had a successful working relationship with Bentley and was originally given the brief to develop the interior of its pavilion. It was later awarded the contract for the Volkswagen pavilion as well, following problems with the originally-chosen designer.
“We had the chance to go in at short notice and with a clean sheet of paper to say what VW means to a German audience,” says Nick Swallow, communications director at Furneaux Stewart.
“We have a British perspective on the brand and its communication, so we had to learn from scratch what it means to Germans. When you say ‘VW’ to Britons or Americans, they think of the new Beetle, which has a quirky, idiosyncratic image. But in Germany, the new Beetle is an offshoot and doesn’t represent the core values. The image is much more mainstream and is associated with German engineering. It’s seen as a higher-quality brand than, for example, Opel or Ford. Volkswagen sets the standard and it is very difficult to introduce it without it being seen as standard. In effect, we had to reappraise it to a market that knows it almost too well.
“The design of the pavilion was based on this view of the marque and reflected the spirit of the cars’ evolution. VW cars don’t undergo dramatic changes of direction: they are recognisably the same. New models incorporate design alterations, rather than a fundamental rethink.”
As visitors enter the cube-shaped pavilion, they are confronted with a giant, lit sphere which doubles as a theatre. While queuing for this main attraction, a seven-minute film demonstrates the process of evolution in the natural world. The theme is continued in the sphere, where visitors experience a seamless film – 360 degrees horizontally and 220 degrees vertically.
“The film demonstrates the evolution of human skills,” explains Swallow. “It features two sisters, one learning to play the violin, the other learning to ice skate. The finale is an extraordinary, moving and uplifting sequence showing them in performance once they have mastered their skills. It demonstrates that it takes time and effort to get where you want to be and reflects the development of the VW marque – every day a little better.”
The only car displayed in the pavilion is the D1 concept car, a model designed to compete with the Mercedes S class range. This is because the German public is aware of the VW model range, but the futuristic concept car reinforces the link to evolution as being key to the VW design philosophy.
The approach taken for the Bentley Pavilion could hardly have been more different.
“The German public is familiar with VW, but knows virtually nothing about Bentley,” says Swallow.
“In Europe, it is still seen as a cheaper or sportier Rolls Royce, when in fact it’s a more expensive and higher-performance model. The VW Group was obviously interested in the key attributes of the marque – its Britishness, Connolly leather, burr walnut and effortless performance – so our job was to explain it and get visitors excited about it.”
The pavilion is divided into four sections that form a trail, building an understanding of the marque. The first part, Discovery, features archive footage of Bentleys at Brooklands and Le Mans to illustrate the car’s history. This is followed by Experience, the main feature of which is a 13-metre revolving crankshaft, based on a 6.7 litre engine. It is set inside a spiral staircase, surrounded by monitors that interweave images of human and animal power with footage demonstrating the torque of a Bentley.
The next area, Exploration, enables visitors to experience the craftsmanship that goes into producing a Bentley. One room contains the “jewellery” of Bentley – its grille, switchgear and chrome. Another area gives a chance to touch and smell manufacturing materials such as lambs’ wool, veneers and metals; there is even a room entirely walled with examples of hand-crafted leather. Finally in this section, visitors see a Silver Seraph.
“We felt it was important to include models,” says Swallow, “because many visitors will never have actually seen a Bentley. Rather than display a series of old models, we felt it was important to show where the marque is going. We had to pay homage to the myth but not rest too heavily on it, so the models are current and future designs.”
The final zone, Conversion, leads visitors through an uplifting encapsulation of the entire experience using overhead video monitors and a powerful soundtrack.
One of the interesting features of Autostadt is that each marque was responsible for its own pavilion.
“We felt that the individual brands had the passion and knowledge of their marques, so we left it to them to arrange the design and content of the pavilions,” says Roeren. “Obviously, we avoided duplication of techniques and concepts but, apart from that, there was no central direction for content.”
This approach mirrors VW’s philosophy of allowing its various brands to develop independently. In Autostadt, it ensures that the projected 1 million visitors a year will find the experience full of surprises. And the company might end up selling a few more cars into the bargain.