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“Getting the Bugs Out” by David Kiley John Wiley & Sons Inc.; 286 pages In the late 1990s, print ads heralded the return of the beloved Volkswagen Beetle: “If you sold your soul in the ’80s here’s your chance to buy it back.” The smart-alecky pitch recalled the groundbreaking work by the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) in the 1960s. That campaign established the original Beetle as a counterculture icon — and somehow managed to turn a little, loud and funny-looking German car into the first mass-market challenge to the chromed behemoths then sold by Detroit. Americans, in the swinging ’60s, found the old Beetle groovy. But to Germans, it was an embarrassment, an outmoded auto that reminded them of postwar austerity and, worse, Nazism. Adolf Hitler had commissioned the Austrian engineering pioneer Ferdinand Porsche to create the car to put German workers on wheels. Such cultural differences between the United States and Germany figure prominently in “Getting The Bugs Out,” by USA Today Detroit bureau chief David Kiley. The book surveys Volkswagen A.G.’s early successes in the United States, decades of doldrums, and revival in the late 1990s. His breezy, informative look at the Wolfsburg, Germany-based auto giant’s marketing and culture during the past few decades stands as a cautionary tale to multinational corporations everywhere. The main lessons? Companies ignore cultural tastes at their peril. And product is king. Kiley concentrates on the marketing and advertising of the Beetle, or “Bug,” and it’s a fascinating tale. An almost accidental success, the Beetle was the first in the battle of importers to conquer a big share of the American auto market. Volkswagen’s U.S. team looked at who was buying its odd little vehicle and found a mixture of nonconformists and skinflints. DDB, Volkswagen’s iconoclastic ad agency, ran with the results — adding a dash of humor along the way. Ads showed the car with the caption “Lemon,” in big block letters, or just displayed blank space to announce that there was no flashy new model to hype. The ads are just one part of an unconventional corporate culture. Volkswagen doesn’t play by the usual rules. The German state of Lower Saxony owns a 20 percent stake in it, and frowns on any effort by VW to lay off workers. That quirkiness has only enhanced the company’s reputation and sales. In recent years, VW (which also owns Audi, SEAT, Skoda, Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti) has become the biggest automaker in Europe, selling almost 1.6 million autos in 2000. There, its mainstream wares are seen as upmarket, rational designs. The road to success in the United States was bumpier. Hurt by an unfavorable exchange rate in the late ’70s, VW built a factory in Westmoreland, Pa. It set up a freestanding manufacturing subsidiary, which didn’t get along with the company’s U.S. marketing office. The Detroit old-timers who ran the factory arm Americanized the VW Rabbit (the car that was supposed to be the Beetle’s replacement) — erasing much of its German character. That misstep and various quality woes led to a precipitous slide in U.S. sales during the 1980s. Kiley’s take on VW’s story has a number of problems. For one, it is U.S.-centric. He details the American division’s difficulties, which are important enough, but he doesn’t really describe the auto company’s importance in Europe. Criticized for boring designs a decade ago, VW nevertheless remained a huge player on the continent, selling about 1.5 million cars there every year. And while quality problems partly explain the brand’s near-demise in the United States by the early 1990s, they do not explain everything. Lower gas prices and changing tastes (as Americans discovered the SUV and minivan) are probably just as much to blame. There also were those dumb VW campaigns in the early 1990s by a then-flailing DDB: Fahrvergnugen, anyone? Another quibble: Kiley tells us more than most anyone would want to know about the genealogy and culture of the agencies that vied to take over the U.S. Volkswagen account in the mid-1990s. After this dissection, he oddly sticks in a chapter about the fear-inspiring VW CEO Ferdinand Pi�ch (a grandson of Herr Doktor Porsche). That said, his description of the process used by the company’s new agency, Boston-based Arnold Communications, to revive and update the brand in the mid-1990s, is fun to read. Despite the small flaws, this bug’s story has a happy ending. A couple of designers secretly came up with a modern version in 1993; it became the “New Beetle” a few years later. Management loved it, and so did customers. VW’s U.S. sales went from around 50,000 cars in 1993 to more than 400,000 vehicles in 2001. And thousands of nostalgic baby boomers can put flowers in the dashboard bud vase, a feature the New Beetle’s creators thought would be a nifty allusion to the days of Flower Power.

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