Volkswagen Tries To Juice Golf Sales With Rabbit Hop

Posted by: David Kiley on April 13, 2006

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Media attendees at The New York Auto Show were taken aback to see that Volkswagen will rename its Golf model in the U.S. Rabbit, hearkening back to the 1970s and early 80’s when the company marketed the Rabbit.

Some thought it was a cool idea. Other’s didn’t. “It’s a brain-dead idea,” said a disgusted Steve Wilhite, chief marketing officer at Nissan and former VW marketing honcho who helped guide the company to recovery in the late 1990s.

The idea came from Volkswagen’s new ad agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which has been driving a lot of conversation about its new work for the GTI. Those ads range from billboards that say, “Auf Wiedersehen Sucka,” to a TV ad in which a GTI owner keeps his wife from erranding with him because he doesn’t want her weight to throw off the balance of the ride.

The naysayers on Rabbit point to a car that had serious product quality problems and, for many, represents a dark chapter in VW’s American life. The flipside is that so many years have gone by that the agency and VW of America feel that a bit of nostalgia might juice sales and interest in a car, the Golf, that has been a non-factor in the U.S. The Golf is VW’s best selling car worldwide, but Americans long ago cooled to hatchbacks. Last year, VW sold just 9,140 Golfs last year, down from 13,402 in 2004. Golf didn’t get much ad support last year in a year in which VW launched new Passats and Jettas. And would-be Golf buyers are waiting for the new Golf, which has been on sale in Europe nearly two years, arriving in showrooms in a few months.

The decision to go back to the Rabbit name, which was created by Volkswagen’s storied ad agency of yore, Doyle, Dane Bernbach, shows the influence of VW marketing director Kerri Martin and the willingness of VW execs in North America and Germany to defy the wishes and past edicts of current supervisory chairman Ferdinand Piech. When Piech was chairman of VW, he constinued the policy ordered by previou chairman Carl Hahn that VW models have global names. The Jetta has been the exception. Elsewhere in the world, it is sold as the Bora, a name U.S. dealers vehemently rejected.

Current VW chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder and VW brand chief Wolfgang Bernhard signed off on the change. Dealers hated the Touareg name that Piech forced on VW’s first SUV in America. Maybe the way things are going, they’ll rename the Touareg…The Thing. The Thing was the name of the much loved rough and tumble SUV VW sold in the U.S. in the late 60s and early 70s, which was really a dressed up kubelwagen, the German Jeep made during World War Two, which was built on the chassis and drivetrain of the Beetle.

Reader Comments

Dave R.

April 14, 2006 11:15 AM

The Rabbit may have had quality problems, but so does the new Mini, yet their owners love them for the driving qualities. Chevrolet's chief engineer for the Chevette in the '70's call the Golf/Rabbit "The standard by which all new small cars are to be judged."

Then again look at the Malibu Maxx, a bright spot in GM's dim product line. It's gaining recognition as a practical, fuel efficient alternative to SUV's for many customers.

In Europe 50% of the market is hatchbacks, and there have been articles written that US customers "just don't get it," the practicality of hatchbacks. Mr. Kiley and many marketing dweebs don't seem to get it either.

Maybe if/when the economy goes down the tubes like it did in the early '80's (when there were many hatchback models on the US market) or worse, people will "get it."

The whole idea of debating marketing name games is superfluous and ludicrous, when one looks at Honda and Toyota.

The Corolla name has been on the US market since 1971, over 35 years, the Camry 22 years.
The Civic name has been on the market continuously for 33 years, the Accord 29 years. And, both the Civic and Accord original models were hatchbacks.

roland

April 14, 2006 6:51 PM

The thing was only built for two years in the '70's. I believe it was 73 and 73.

Kiley

April 18, 2006 1:01 PM

Kiley...a dweeb about hatchbacks? Let me tell you sparky...I am a huge fan of hatchbacks. Every car I have ever owned has been a hatchback. But i'm in the minority as far as how Americans think and choose their cars.

FD Watson

April 27, 2006 3:29 PM

It's interesting that a German company is playing the American nostalgia game. Truth is, it won't work.

Let's see, Chrysler is ressurrecting the Aspen name for a thinly disguised Dodge Durango. Dodge brought back the Charger name to a sedan. Challenger is just around the corner. Is the Dodge Coronet Super Bee far behind? Chevy brought back Malibu to augment it's Impala. (I can't wait for the Chevette or Monza monikers to come back!) Ford brought back a super-sized version of it's famed GT40. Same name. The Mustang looks like it's straight off the 1967 assembly line. Thunderbird just died. Lincoln sells the Zephyr. (Used to be a Mercury, a near clone of the esteemed Ford Fairmont.) Ewwwwww.

Applying the Rabbit name to a car decidedly aimed to the 18-34 age group is a bad idea. It would be interesting to a fly-on-the-wall in the focus groups which essentially decided on this one. "What a cute name!" "I think it sounds fun!"

Rabbit? Are you kidding me?

Maybe the idea is to change the perception of the American buyer that has been burned by the lack-luster quality of Volkswagens of late. I'm in the target age group and woundn't touch a VW with a 10-foot pole. I've been in late model Jettas that drop their power windows into the doors. Twice. Passats that have electrical gremlins like those of British cars from the 60s. GTIs that won't start in the rain. Let's not even talk about the resale value.

There is no brand equity left in the Rabbit name. Maybe CP + B are hoping (or hopping) for another marketing slam dunk like they had for BMW's MINI.

The formula for success with automobile manufacturers is easy. Build quality product that lasts. For more on this, see Honda or Toyota.

galen currington

July 7, 2006 4:05 PM

i just want to say he's right about quality how do you think vw got started years ago they made good quality stuff in the 50's and 60's. that's why people bought them. vwoa has forgot about that. they have forgotten there roots. they don't embrace there past at all. even gm and for embrace there past.

Tony Walter Mele

January 5, 2007 12:33 PM

My wife and I drive VW cars because they feel robust and are quite fun to drive. However, I strongly suggest that VW hire some other auto maker to design their electrical system. Even the Koreans design a more reliable electrical system than the Germans. And I fear the very unreliable City Jetta and City Golf manufactured in Brazil will permanently damage VWs reputation. Its a bloody shame.

Dan St Peters

November 16, 2008 10:17 AM

GM and Ford appear to embrace their past because we are all familiar with that past. Not so much are we in tune with VW. There are, right now, more models that you, as an American, are completely unfamiliar with than there are that you DO know of by VW. But don't think for one second that Ford building a retro-mustang is for any purpose other than to sponge up dollars. Let's not over-romanticize what the auto industry does to generate sales.

As for VW's start...they did not build quality cars in the 50/60s. No, sir, they built cheap ones. And they did this at a time when it was easy to build cars: back before 5mph bumpers, side-intrusion beams, 7+ airbags, crumple zones, etc. In other words...you wouldn't allow your kids to ride in a car with the original beetle's saftey credentials. Its a tougher world out there today than it was in 1958.

Dan St Peters

September 14, 2009 10:55 AM

Fast forward to the future...its Gen-6 Golf time and VW has dumped the idea of continuing with "Rabbit" badging. It was, as we can now see, a dumb idea.

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