Controversial marketing: how successful are VW Polo’s ad strategies?

There’s no such thing as bad publicity is one of the oldest mottos in the marketing industry and still firmly believed by many. Using controversial topics and funny campaigns can spark engagement and discussion within society, which is exactly what you want in marketing. But do some brands go too far?

Volkswagen is a global brand with an innovative approach to advertising — especially when it comes to the VW Polo. Vindis, a VW dealership, has looked at how the company pushes humour and controversy to sell it products and explores why they’ve been successful and whether other SMEs can do the same.

What do we think about controversial advertising?

Like everything else, advertising is subjective and can be interpreted many ways. What one person might find hilarious, another might recoil in horror and another might be totally appalled. So, what’s the secret? Many people think the trick is to be clever with your message and imagery and never set out to disgust just to get your name out there. With 30% of men and women admitting they avoided purchasing from brands with distasteful advertising campaigns, businesses need to be careful how they approach marketing campaigns.

Past VW Polo successes

A key tactic of Volkswagen marketing is to focus on a model’s best or most sellable feature and build an ad around that. For example; one of its campaigns capitalised on the size of the brand’s supermini. With the tag line ‘one benefit of the new Polo is that you can park it anywhere’, the advertisement shows a VW Polo parked on top of the billboard, which is a good example of how to use humour effectively.

Volkswagen cars are well-known for being small and strong. One campaign that capitalised on the ‘small but tough’ slogan was in 2003. This ad showed a dozen police officers taking cover behind the VW Polo during a gun shoot-out, which was a clever way to get across the resilience aspect to the audience.

Advertising relies a lot on icons, trademarks and traditions. But it’s also crucial that your new campaign is original and up-to-date. Volkswagen is known for piggy-backing on current affairs to keep their advertising campaigns fresh and has also continued to approach all its VW Polo advertising strategies with the slogan ‘small but tough’.

An example of the brand’s capitalisation on real-life events is the ‘elephant’ campaign. Around 2014, an image of an elephant straddling a Volkswagen Polo (presumably as a makeshift scratching post) went viral. Volkswagen leapt on this free advertising by using it as part of its campaign, suggesting that the car comes with ‘elephant impact protection as standard’. This was genius advertising. Not only was the image real, newsworthy and already endeared to millions of viewers, but the tagline added a touch of humour that many consumers respond to, especially when it comes from a huge corporate brand. Basically, Volkswagen saw an opportunity to utilise the image in its favour – tactfully making the most of its ‘small but tough’ slogan.

Of course, it’s not new for companies to use the Internet in their favour. It’s likely that Volkswagen would have not seen the image had it not been for social media, and the rise of digitalisation and social media apps has allowed advertisers and brands to make the most of ‘viral marketing’ as a tool to spread information.

How can your company make the most of funny and controversial marketing tactics?

If you want to kick-start your marketing campaign and get your brand out there, controversy is one of the fastest routes you can take.

However, you should proceed with caution and strive to dodge a set of topics that rarely, if ever, whip up positive publicity. Generally, it’s a safer option to avoid anything to do with racism, sexuality, religion and politics (politics mainly because it’s so divisive rather than implying the public doesn’t love lampooning certain figures).

The best way SMEs can approach advertising campaigns is to keep up with viral trends. SMEs should be active on social media for the best chances of exposure and free advertising with any type of budget. Whether you’re a large corporate business or a start-up business; Google can’t differentiate between the two and treats both as equals which can be lucrative. Remember, it’s free to set up a social media profile.

Keep your eye on what’s happening in the news and social media to stay ahead of the game and don’t be controversial for the sake of it. If you can catch your audience’s attention with a positive, funny or thought-provoking campaign, the sky could be the limit.

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