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It’s 1960, and you’re flipping through LIFE magazine. You’re stopped by an advertisement that doesn’t look like any of the other ads in the magazine. There’s lots of white space, a tiny off-center image of the car itself (which, by the way, is an odd-looking little vehicle), and an understated two-word headline, “Think small.”
The ad stands out because this isn’t what ads are supposed to be like in 1960. It’s neither splashy nor dreamy; it has none of those familiar ad images of folks laughing and frolicking, women’s hair blowing in the breeze, gorgeous scenery—all those too-good-to-be-true images that were associated with ads at the time. Moreover, the ad seems to be speaking a new language: it’s more straightforward and down-to-earth than ad copy is supposed to be, but at the same time, it’s also smarter, sharper, and more clever.
Just from reading the ad, you feel like maybe you get some sense of the people who made it, as well as the people who made the car. They’re not like everybody else; they seem to be zigging while all others are zagging—which is kind of the way you see yourself. In a time of conformity and “keeping up with the Joneses,” this ad is about going your own way. You may or not buy this car, but there’s something going on in this ad that you’re connecting with, and that you might want to be part of.
The Volkswagen “Think Small” campaign is widely recognized as the ad that helped launch advertising’s creative revolution of the 1960s. But I think it was something else, too. It may well have been the first time a marketer successfully launched a movement behind a brand.
Mind you, it was clearly different from some of the more modern marketing movements—for one thing, it was much simpler in terms of how it communicated with the public. Obviously, VW’s ad agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) couldn’t use Facebook or Twitter or any of the other marvelous social networking tools that are now so integral to launching movements; it relied on a series of striking print ads, some very memorable TV commercials, and a billboard here and there.
But even if VW and DDB weren’t wired and digitally networked at the time, they did, nonetheless, have a good ear to the ground. And that enabled them to pick up the early rumblings of something that was just starting to build at that time—a vague dissatisfaction with 1950s consumerism and the prevailing “bigger is better” mindset about cars. The 1960s counterculture had not yet taken hold, but there was a restlessness out there—which no one in the mainstream culture had really expressed prior to this—about big fins and gas-guzzling Cadillacs, and what all of that represented.
Dominik Imseng, the author of THINK SMALL, a book about the famous ad, notes that there was something “un-American” about it (and not just because the car was made in Germany). “In a way,” Imseng says, “‘Think Small’ was Ginsberg’s HOWL from 1956 as an ad—objecting to the consumerism and materialism of the American Way of Life.”
Julian Koenig, one of the ad’s original creators, said that part of the idea he was trying to convey was that in buying a Volkswagen, “You could take an inverse delight in not having to keep up with the Joneses—in not responding to Detroit’s planned obsolescence, in not being part of that repetitive, competitive culture.”
Certainly, America was ready for an alternative in terms of car choices, and the Volkswagen Beetle offered that alternative. But a product by itself does not a movement make. People tend to gather and rally around ideas, and usually those ideas have to be expressed in a certain way to get folks fired up. This is the reason why social movements are often associated with iconic images, symbols, or flags; it’s also the reason why many movements develop rallying cries, phrases and words that come to mean something very deep to the people within the movement.
The Volkswagen campaign was rich in the kind of semiotics that can serve as shorthand for communicating a radical idea to large numbers of people who are receptive to it. DDB designer Helmut Krone’s use of white space in the “Think Small” ad was almost an act of defiance, in advertising terms. Why would an advertiser pay for that space and then leave it empty? Krone was sending a signal to his audience: “We don’t care about ad conventions, and neither do you, so let’s dispense with unnecessary imagery.” Similar nod-and-wink messages could be picked up from the way the car was depicted in the ads (shrunken down and off-center; in one ad, Krone even showed the car dented!). Along with the understated style of the copy, it all said to the ad’s audience, “There’s something going on here, not just in this ad, but in the culture. Do you get it? Are you part of it?”
Those who could tune in to those messages, who understood the cultural changes that VW was talking about and agreed with the basic philosophy behind “Think Small,” became the “true believers” of the movement. VW had created a kind of club to which these people could belong. And those who became part of that club weren’t just customers—they were advocates who took up the cause. They came to embrace VW’s ideals, identified with the brand, and, in many cases, remained loyal to it for years and even decades to come.
Why the thinking behind 'Think Small' is still relevant
Today, a half century later, there’s a lot we can learn from “Think Small”—and also from subsequent groundbreaking campaigns from Apple Computer, Diesel Jeans, and Dove soap—about how to connect with people in a way that goes beyond just selling a product. One key point is that for any marketing campaign to go beyond being just ads and generate something that can credibly be called a movement, there must be a powerful idea at the core—one that is about a lot more than just the product you’re trying to sell. We find one example from (PRODUCT) RED:
THE BIG IDEA
Cause marketing is a partnership between for-profits and nonprofits for mutual benefit. It offers causes valuable branding and visibility for all concerned. (PRODUCT) RED’s goal is to transform the collective power of consumers into a financial force to help fight AIDS and other diseases in Africa. (RED) is a brand licensed to partner with companies such as the Gap, Nike, Starbucks, Converse, Dell, Apple, American Express, and Penguin Classics, among others. These companies develop their own product(s) featuring the high-profile (PRODUCT) RED logo, with a percentage of the proceeds going to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
Bono of U2 and Bobby Shriver founded (PRODUCT) RED in 2006.
HOW IT SPREAD (PRODUCT) RED spread through its pacts with its partners, extensive media coverage resulting from the high profile of the corporations involved and (PRODUCT) RED’s founders, social networking, celebrity spokespeople, and brand exposure. In 2010, a full-length documentary called THE LAZARUS EFFECT was executive produced by Spike Jonze and sponsored by (RED), HBO, and Anonymous Content, on the heels of a public-service TV cam-paign (of the same name) featuring high-profile celebrities in the United States.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Scott Goodson, excerpted from his book, UPRISING © 2012 McGraw-Hill Professional. Shared with permission of McGraw-Hill Professional.
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