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


Brand Zealots: Realizing the Full Value of Emotional Brand Loyalty


Although American small cars like the Corvair were unable to unseat the Beetle from its long-lived prosperity, new manufacturers and new technologies ultimately were. Japanese brands like Toyota, Datsun and Honda began their successful assault on the automotive market in the early 1970's. Although they did not stimulate emotional response of the same magnitude as the Beetle, they were functionally superior in terms of price, quality and technology.

As a result, Beetle sales fell. The last "Herbie" movie was made in 1980. The last year that Volkswagen of America records sales for the Beetle is 1981. That year, 33 cars were sold. The Beetle was dead.

Or was it?

A quick check of the Internet shows hundreds of sites featuring vintage Volkswagen Beetles. Enthusiasts keep alive dozens of Beetle clubs, including the Vintage Volkswagen Club of America, with 40 regional chapters. Hundreds of companies and individuals offer Beetle parts and service. Clearly, there was enough residual activity here for VW to consider tapping into.

Ultimately, Volkwagen decided to see if the emotional loyalty from its old product was strong enough to create a New Beetle. The Beetle Buzz Web site published by Opolus Enterprises, whose very existence is itself an example of brand zealotry, recently described the event:

"Volkswagen was unsure and somewhat negative of how people would receive the Concept 1 prototype (later the New Beetle) in 1994 - and even a bit leery on how its March 1998 production version would be accepted. Initial projections for the New Beetle were to sell 50,000 units in the United States over the first 12 months. However, enormously positive word of mouth contributed to a large number of automotive awards (e.g., J.D. Power & Associates' Most Appealing Small Car, European Car's Grand Prix 1998 Award, Consumer's Digest's Best Buy, Time's Best of 1998 Design, Business Week's Best New Products and Popular Science's Best of What's New For 1998). Many of these awards clearly considered the consumer enthusiasm for the product (e.g., the New Beetle is "the most outstanding new car based on its consumer appeal, quality and driving characteristics"). For Volks-wagen, this confluence of consumer enthusiasm and product awards led to North American sales of approximately 60,000 units in its first nine months and to brand extensions (e.g., the Super Beetle)."

Certainly, the New Beetle is off to a promising start, and the history of the Volkswagen Beetle points to some tantalizing opportunities for branders to leverage their emotionally loyal customers.

Reprint No. 99407

Horacio D. Rozanski, [email protected] Horacio D. Rozanski is a vice president in Booz-Allen & Hamilton’s New York office. He specializes in developing marketing strategies and customer understanding across a range of industries.
Allen G. Baum, Allen G. Baum is a senior associate of Booz-Allen based in Cleveland. He specializes in developing market entry strategies across a range of industries. He received his M.S.I.A. from Carnegie Mellon University.
Bradley T. Wolfsen is an associate of Booz-Allen based in San Francisco. He focuses on the marketing and organizational aspects of new business development in several industries. He received his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago.
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