How Volkswagen Became the World’s Largest Car Manufacturer

How Volkswagen Became the World’s Largest Car Manufacturer

Now the biggest-selling car manufacturer in the world, Volkswagen Group has seen a wealth of success since its uncertain beginnings in inter-war Germany.

The brand has endured desperate periods of economic crisis and enjoyed huge accomplishments in times of great prosperity. In any and every situation throughout its lifetime, memorable global marketing campaigns have been crucial to the survival and growth of the business.

Fascist foundations

VW’s creation under the Nazi dictatorship of Adolf Hitler is no secret to the modern consumer, yet we must credit the success of the original “people’s car” not only to the indoctrination of the fascist regime, but equally to the Führer’s shrewd and well-targeted marketing campaigns.

The gap in the market for a cheap, mass-produced car had already been recognized by engineers, who had since been seeking to create a product which would fulfill this specification. Hitler’s knowledge of his target market, namely families of the Aryan race, together with his persuasive sales techniques were indispensable to the start of an effective enterprise.

Strength through joy

On the 26th May 1938 the “Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH” (Society for the preparation of the German people’s car) was launched and the company’s original model went into mass production. As ever, marketing was central to this event, which was held under the strict control of the well-oiled Nazi propaganda machine, witnessing to an estimated 70,000 members of the public and 150 reporters.

The proselytising leader of the Third Reich ensured that the initial image of the car was positive and widespread by naming it the “Kraft durch Freude” (KdF), or “strength through joy” car. Although the vehicle was to be seen as a standard, everyday product, Hitler simultaneously conveyed the message that owning a KdF-Wagen was an accomplishment to be taken with great pride, and thus the dictator convinced German citizens that the National Socialist government was providing for their needs, whilst also giving them a misleading but satisfying sense of self-pride.

Post-war blues

Not surprisingly, VW sales plummeted following the end of the Second World War. Hitler’s previous marketing campaign had centred around Nazi ideals that German citizens now wanted to distance themselves from.

VW now faced a serious challenge and needed to rethink its strategy if it hoped to attract international customers in a post-war world which was increasingly globalised.

The trick of trade

The decision made in the summer of 1947 to export the VW, firstly to Britain, proved to be the foundation for commercial recovery and international success. In 1948 VW signed contracts to export vehicles to Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

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This success continued into the 1950s both in Germany and overseas. The model commonly known as the “Beetle” became a symbol of economic success and an icon of West German regeneration, enjoying a massive 40% of market share within a decade. VW soon became reliant on exports, selling over 27,000 cars to 17 countries in 1950. By 1955 this figure had escalated to over 147,000 cars sold in 45 different countries.

Modern day marketing

Long since the days of Hitler’s brutal leadership, a whole host of smart slogans and astute advertising campaigns have continued to play an equally important role in VW’s growth.

Recent TV advertisements in the UK have focused on promoting certain aspects of the Volkswagen range. For example, a 2012 commercial shows a young girl growing up under the close protection of her loving father, who eventually gifts her a VW Polo. Here the company effectively manipulate the emotions of their audience, and in doing so successfully present the vehicle as safe and reliable.


A similarly themed 2014 advertisement from Volkswagen India takes a more comical approach, as the Father interrogates the sales man on how the car would react to ‘bad driving’ before also gifting the car to his precious daughter, demonstrating his confidence in the brand.


Another popular advertising approach in recent years has been to market Volkswagen vehicles as ‘fun’ and ‘cool’. One ‘Enjoy the Engineering’ advertisement, also from Volkswagen India, shows two young men in a Volkswagen, of which the driver is so consumed in the pleasure of driving that it doesn’t cross his mind to stop and pick up the young, attractive girl hitch-hiking at the side of the road.


Juxtaposed to this yet achieving the same effect is the 2009 VW Polo advert “Cool”, which shows a young, male Polo driver not needing to compete in a car race in order to win the attention of the beautiful girl.


An additional approach has been to develop initiatives such as The Fun Theory. Although these videos don’t directly promote their product, they are successful in associating the Volkswagen brand with a sense of fun and well-being.

Lost in Translation

As a rule, Volkswagen has achieved plenty of success with their well-planned and executed international marketing strategies, but that isn’t to say they are completely without fault. As the image below demonstrates, the slightest translation error can distract from the message and fail to deliver the intended response.

sutch a delightful car

For Volkswagen as for other international enterprises, it’s essential to market a product to a specific target audience. When doing so, one of the many factors to be taken into account is the consumer’s cultural background. Both in the US and in the UK Volkswagen ran a successful and ‘catchy’ ad often referred to as “Ya Ya Ya”. In Germany the ad didn’t run, as a large part of its appeal came from the comical value of how English speakers perceive the German language.

It’s all relative

VW is also the owner of Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Porsche, SEAT and Škoda. While it may seem that some of these brands are direct competitors – Lamborghini and Bentley for example – each of them has been carefully positioned to target a very specific type of customer.

While the Lamborghini has been positioned as the vehicle of choice for reasonably young, single men, the Bentley markets itself as a modern take on classic design. Both vehicles are targeted at the super rich, although Lamborghini adverts often focus on the stylish, super-fast aspects of the car, while the Bentley is presented as smart and timeless, pursuing a slightly older demographic.

In the UK adverts VW Golfs are often driven by a seemingly middle class “family man” type figure, or by young drivers who are probably not yet in stable careers.

The Porsche, on the other hand, is presented quite differently; rarely do children appear in the adverts, and when they do they are always young boys, employed to portray a sense of fantasy, that one day, when they have reached a certain stage in their lives and careers, they will be able to achieve the ultimate dream of owning a Porsche.

VW has come a long way from its roots in wartime Germany, in no small part due to its international focus and highly localized marketing strategy. The company’s success has been propelled by soaring sales in China which now accounts for a third of its revenue. With a slowdown expected in the Chinese economy, the company will undoubtedly be eyeing up new emerging markets as a source of future revenue. So we’ll be watching with interest to see how they position themselves to local audiences in these new markets.

Written by Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf is Head of Digital at TranslateMedia. He has an interest in how technology can help businesses achieve their marketing objectives. He's been working in digital marketing and web development since 2001 across a wide range of industries and clients.

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