Doug Garnett’s Blog


Even Cars Can Be Shelf Potatoes. Consider Volkswagon’s Eurovan

Eurovan vacation in Eastern Washington

Two and a half years ago I purchased my 2001 Eurovan (Weekender) – a pop top camper that carries 7, sleeps four, hauls 4′ by 8′ sheets of plywood inside, and lets our kids play across a table on road trips. Even better, VW finally upgraded to a strong motor so that the van powers it’s way over mountain passes.

The Eurovan excites passion among those who own them or would like to own them. We Eurovan owners wave to each other on the road and stop to talk in the parking lot. I’ve even had an owner leave me a note asking me to help him find a roof rack setup like the one on ours. BUT, in 2003 VW cancelled the product in the US.

And that leads us to today’s installment of ShelfPotato Diaries. Why did a car that excites this passion eventually fail? It seems their rationale for cancellation included two primary reasons:

1. Sales were lackluster.
2. VW decided they couldn’t compete with the features on minivans.

These are just the final reasons it was cancelled. Much earlier, I think they made a common shelf potato error: they chose not to embrace their product for its true quirky glory. And this affected everything.

For kids, no more magical way to travel than a poptop camper. It’s amazing how much more they can interact while facing each other across the table.

Targeting. VW tried to sell the Eurovan as a minivan. This meant targeting a vast market where family features outweighed the value VW brought. And, it meant selling where VW’s quirkiness wasn’t valued. Most families enjoy their minivans (like we enjoyed our Chrysler minivan). But my family LOVES the Eurovan. This choice doomed the Eurovan from the start and lost the excitement that a descendant of the early VW bus should have carried.

Product Personality. So here’s this product with tremendous personality. But VW buried it with blandness. The Eurovan is clearly the most dull of their three vans.

Sitting on the street people don’t know it has a poptop, sleeps four comfortable, or sleeps 2 upstairs. This is a marketing disadvantage.

The Poptop. A poptop turns the dullness of a minivan into an exceptional family adventure. But VW hid the poptop by making it so sleek you don’t notice it. This apparently good engineering choice was actually a very poor marketing choice. Why hide your best feature? Incidentally, the rear seating setup in the weekender is another superb feature – but you’d never know about it until you sit inside the Eurovan.

Ineffective Communication. VW never got across the family thrill of owning a Weekender. A good friend of mine observed how much excitement he hears from my family as we talk about the car. The boys are so proud of the poptop that they think having the transformer of cars is even cooler than having a Porsche (tho’ probably not a Ferrari).

Bad Juju for the VW Brand. After releasing the new Beetle, VW descended into a line of heavily dull cars (no matter how exciting their ads said they were). This kept people out of the showrooms so, lacking communication, they never discovered the Eurovan’s value. And that meant this once passionate brand of the un-typical lost its core audience of people – people who don’t want a car that looks like a Honda.

VW’s van program is in shambles today. They recently released a rebadged Chrysler van then tried to tell us it was uniquely VW. Even worse, they may never produce another poptop (which concerns one of my boys who wants to be able to buy one when he’s a dad).

A True Measure of Their Brand Pain. I was talking with the guy who runs the front office at my VW/Porsche/Audi repair shop. They find that VW owners aren’t re-purchasing the brand. Because these brand loyalists don’t want the young sexy pocket rockets that seem to have distracted VW. Instead, VW’s are replaced most often with Subaru’s. (So now the repair shop has had to grow to handle VW/Porsche/Audi…and Subaru.)

VW’s biggest successes come from the cars with personality – an element of brand truth that ad guru William Bernbach leveraged 50 years to deliver huge impact from tiny ad budgets.

This leads to a shelf potato truth: Marketers too often try to sell what they think they should sell – instead of selling the products they have to the audience that will buy them. And there’s no faster way to turn a good product into a shelf potato.

Copyright 2010 – Doug Garnett

Categories:   Advertising, consumer marketing, Retail, technology marketing


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