Volkswagen - Think Small (1959)

Borne out of an era where adverts were either product information dumps or pipe-dream fantasies, and depicting a product that was perceived by many as too strange to sell, agency Doyle Dane Bernbach's (DDB) 1959 "Think Small" campaign for Volkswagen had many ad men scratching their heads. But it wasn't terribly important what fellow ad execs saw in this one-pager, as it was a major hit with consumers. Mark Hamilton writes on Medium, "People talked about it around the water cooler. Teenagers ripped it out of magazines and pinned it to their walls. It became, temporarily, more than just another ad." For a car that looked so unlike other contemporary offerings, and as impressively, for a car which was manufactured in a plant built by the Nazis just a bit more than a decade earlier, the campaign did the impossible. This little-known car went from foreign obscurity to the being America's most popular import automobile in short time. By 1972, the Beetle had stolen the Model T's crown as the world's best-selling car.

Why We Love Think Small

A. It bucked trends

At a time when most brands were using illustrations for creative, DDB & Volkswagen opted for a real photo. When most other brands were going for color, they went for black & white. And when most other brands were using verbose copy, they went for something succinct.

B. It was stripped down

When Think Small debuted, most brands were trying to maximize their spend in a way that seemed intuitive — use every inch of space you paid for — but this strategy wasn’t effective. TheThink Small campaign made creatives everywhere realize that ideas flourish, and messages spread, when they’ve got room to breathe.

C. It was forthright

“The low, sleek profile … sculptured lines … the distinguished look … the alive, eager response…” With such impactful adjectives, you’d think this copy was meant to describe an ultramodern jet from Boeing. You’d be wrong. All of those words were pulled from an 1959 IBM ad — for a typewriter. This was the norm when Think Small first hit paper, and it’s part of why VW’s candor so successfully penetrated the noise.

What We Can Learn From Think Small

1. Have people reconsider their habits

The 50s had many Americans upsizing their cars — but Volkswagen made them ask, “why?,” with the Think Small campaign. Americans were driving cars that needed five quarts of oil, and VW pointed out that the Beetle only needed five pints. This might seem like a strange selling point, but that is the point: this car wasn’t like the others.

2. Differentiate yourself — even if you're moving backwards

Color printing had been around for nearly half-a-century when Think Small was released, so by this time, it was ubiquitous. While VW’s choice to use black & white might have been a budgetary necessity, it served as a huge differentiator from what was printed around it.

3. Make thrifty seem cool

Volkswagen’s Beetle was cheap — but that’s not how it was framed. By focusing on compelling features, rather than a hard-to-beat price point, VW ostensibly gave buyers permission to be economical without feeling cheap.

Key Moments

1955
To the U.S.

Volkswagen sets up its U.S. headquarters

1959
To Print

Volkswagen partners with DDB and launches the Think Small campaign to great acclaim

1960s
To the Top

The Volkswagen Beetle becomes the best-selling import car in America

1999
The Top Campaign

Ad Age names Think Small the #1 campaign of the 20th century

Gallery

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