Will VW’s message be lost in translation?

With its German-language slogan, Volkswagen is reinforcing stereotypical views of German efficiency and solid engineering. But this strategy can work against brands too, says John Stones

The tagline used by Bavarian beer brand Hofbrau on its beer mats is “Reassuringly German”. And so reassured are consumers with the “Made in Germany” promise that they are often willing to pay a premium for it.

Volkswagen is the latest brand to take advantage of consumers’ faith in all things German with its new slogan “Aus Liebe zum Automobil”, which translates as “for the love of the car” (MW last week). Emulating the strategy taken by sister brand Audi, which uses the “Vorsprung durch Technik” slogan, Volkswagen’s tag will not be translated into English over here.

While national stereotyping may be considered socially offensive, when it comes to marketing and advertising, both consumers and companies seem only too happy to play the country game. German companies have been particularly adept at converting their nationality and its associated characteristics of technical skill and reliability to their advantage. Mercedes cars, Miele washing machines, Leica cameras, to name but a few, have been elevated to icons of quality and durability.

Volkswagen has shied away from imposing its new slogan on all its markets. While other European countries are considering adopting the slogan in German, as the UK has done, the US has firmly rejected the line altogether and is sticking with “Drivers Wanted”. Philip Heitmann, board account director at DDB London, part of the DBB network that handles Volkswagen globally, says retaining the German phrase “creates intrigue”, adding: “German heritage is a good thing when it comes to cars. It implies attention to detail and that they’re well built.”

Audi makes so much of this German heritage in its UK literature for its new Audi A6 saloon that it states: “Premium means ‘German’ for the vast majority of buyers”. While Audi is clearly sold as premium, the Volkswagen marque is positioned as a mass-market product, albeit one sold at a slight premium. However, Volkswagen positioning has come under pressure, with the launch of the latest fifth-generation Golf getting off to a shaky start (MW February 19).

Miele UK sales and marketing director for domestic appliances Gareth Pugh suggests Volkswagen’s use of the German phrase might be an intentional move to re-establish some of the car brand’s core brand values, which have become confused over recent years. Recently, German cars have fared poorly in reliability (a key “German” attribute) surveys (MW December 18, 2003), and in the past few weeks Mercedes has had to recall some models. Furthermore, consumers have become aware that the Volkswagen group also owns the cheaper, non-German brands Skoda and Seat.

Pugh says this erosion of what Germany stands for in relation to cars has not spread to other German brands. For him, the “German-ness” of Miele is vital, with connotations of premium quality, durability and best performance. Its slogan “Immer besser” is translated as “anything else is a compromise” for the UK market.

The allure of the German halo remains such that some brands have been accused of trying to appear German when they are not. Möben Kitchens fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority for adding an umlaut to its name and falsely giving the impression that it is German (MW September 13, 2001). The company, based in Manchester, is still forced to state that it is a British company in its communications.

However, “German-ness” is not always so positive. While beer and Germany go hand in hand, a buyer for a leading supermarket chain says: “German beer has a strong quality perception, but consumers aren’t willing to pay a premium for it. Holsten has fallen into the pack and only Beck’s can attract any sort of premium.”

In the fashion sector, German brands such as Hugo Boss, Puma and Adidas also make little reference to their country of origin, although Adidas trainers carry a small “die Marke mit den drei Streifen” (“the brand with the three stripes”) label. Interbrand global managing director Jan Lindemann, himself German, says: “Being German is simply not part of their brand equity.”

The legacy of the Third Reich is also a factor that continues to haunt some German brands, and Volkswagen, BMW and Deutsche Bank, to name but a few, are still being sued for their involvement with the regime. Lindemann points out that many of the best known companies were established brands before the Nazi period (Volkswagen is the exception) and that there was no need for them to rebrand after the Second World War as their current brand images are partly due to the result of the German economic miracle of the Fifties.

But brands that do play on their German heritage could be forced to dilute their message in the face of an ever-expanding Europe and increased regulation from the EU. However, a recent proposal to label European products “Made in EU” has been knocked back and for the time being at least Volkswagen has the freedom to make the most of its “German-ness”.