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 / Fourth Quarter 1999 / Issue 17(originally published by Booz & Company)


Brand Zealots: Realizing the Full Value of Emotional Brand Loyalty


The Beetle was not born with emotional loyalty. In the United States in the late 1950's VW customers first bought their Beetles because they were cheap: 88 percent of consumers said they bought Beetles because they were "cheaper to operate" and 60 percent said they would have bought a domestic car if one had been available at a similar price, according to a National Automotive Dealers Association survey of import ownership in 1956-58. But early VW customers repurchased Beetles because they were great cars. Early reviews in Motor Trend, Popular Science, Mechanix Illustrated and Consumer Reports cast the Beetle as inexpensive, reliable and safe.

As James M. Flammang states in his book "Volkswagen: Beetles, Buses & Beyond" (Krause Publications, 1996): "In its April 1951 issue, Consumer Reports marveled that for $1,280, the Volkswagen 'contains a lot of engineering.' The engine was 'designed to be able to operate all day at about 60 m.p.h., which is about the car's top speed. The car behaves well on ice with far more traction than the cars we're used to.' Consumer Reports testers also praised the solid construction and flawless finish, 'from its excellent enamel paint job to the spare fan belt in the tool kit.' "

However, by the mid-1950's, many of the Beetle's functional buyers had become much more emotional about their car. In 1956, Popular Mechanics wrote, "What is there about this small, ugly, low- powered import that excites people all over the world and makes every owner talk like a salesman?" The same magazine concluded, after talking with hundreds of owners, that "these owners actually have fallen in love with a car"; 96 percent of these owners rated their car as "excellent" and none rated it as "poor."


Many attributes of the Beetle have been credited with creating its cult status: the car's quality, its remarkable appearance, the ease of repair. Moreover, there are several things that VW itself did that seemed to reinforce its growing emotional segment (for example, quirky media campaigns, owner magazines in the 1960's, gold watch rewards for Beetle longevity, bonds for babies born in Beetles). Whatever the true source of the phenomenon, customers began to build special relationships with their VW Beetles.

Mr. Flammang relates: "Life magazine dubbed the Volkswagen 'a member of the family that just happens to live in the garage.' Popular Mechanics interviewed a businesswoman who called her VW Beetle 'the first major love affair of my life.'

Clearly, the VW Beetle had become more of a relationship partner than a car for many of its owners. Volkswagen itself recognized and amplified this relationship with some of its late 1950's and 1960's advertisements. Probably the best example showed a VW being towed; it read: "A thing like this could happen, even to a Volkswagen. After all, it's only human."

The emotional relationships that large groups of customers established with their Beetles enabled some nontraditional uses of the product, which might today be considered brand extensions. Movies (the "Herbie" series), art and even watercraft (Waterbugs of America Racing Association) were all created around Beetles. Certainly, the New Beetle introduced in 1998 takes advantage of the emotional relationships that people established with the original Beetle.


Extensions like the "Herbie" movies were enabled by the positive environment created by the Beetle's emotionally loyal customers. Another example of this Beetle advocacy is the enthusiasm that makes owners want to become salespeople. These Beetle advocates create an externality whose value goes beyond their direct purchasing power.

One fascinating example of the power of Beetle advocacy occurred when the consumer advocate Ralph Nader attacked the Beetle. In 1965, Mr. Nader criticized the Chevrolet Corvair in his book "Unsafe at Any Speed" (Bantam Books). The damaging impact on public opinion has been widely discussed, and by 1969, production of the Corvair was canceled. What is less well known is that Mr. Nader also went after the Beetle with comparable warnings, saying that it was "hard to find a more dangerous car than the Volkswagen." Moreover, a 1970 critique by the Center for Auto Safety, Mr. Flammang tells us, called for huge Beetle recalls. Despite the potential for public-relations nightmares similar to those that killed the Corvair, approximately two million Beetles were sold in the United States in the 1970's. Apparently, the power of Beetle advocacy was sufficient to overcome the power of traditional consumer advocates.

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