October 8, 2019
Back in the mid to late 90s— and even until the early 2000s— the German car company, Volkswagen, could do no wrong. It offered snappy, cool, little cars like the Jetta and Golf with an amazing deal attached to them: $199 a month! If you were a recent college graduate, your eyes were wide open and thinking, “Wow! I can have a shining brand-new VW Jetta for $199 a month? Hot darn, I can afford that!” Jettas and Golfs sold like hotcakes. Kudos to VW for giving a market what they wanted and inspiring an audience – or maybe not.
Unfortunately, the inspiration was short lived. Why? Because it was narrow-sighted, cookie-cutter manufactured marketing; VW did not investigate and uncover the unexpected insights of their young audience. VW’s thinking was if they could lure a younger audience with a good deal, then they would be brand loyal for life. Well, that didn’t happen at all. The unexpected insight was this: every college graduate was thinking, “Great! I can get a shiny new car which gives me the illusion of looking cool and successful, even though what I really want is a BMW, which I know I can’t afford yet. In a few years when I start making more money, I’ll jump ship, sell my Jetta, and upgrade to a new BMW 3 series, because that’ll really prove I am successful.”
That’s exactly what happened. Sales tanked and VW hurried to come out with more expensive and higher performing cars in an attempt to keep their audience brand loyal, but it was too late— the buyers left. They had gone to BMW, Audi and other luxury carmakers. Things only got worse for VW when BMW came out with the 1 and 2 series, both entry-level cars that fulfilled the younger audience’s dreams at an affordable price, which meant there was no need to get a VW post-graduation and upgrade later. Good job BMW. You not only inspired your audience, you kept them inspired. When that younger audience grew up, so did their car choices. They upgraded to a BMW 5 series, then maybe a 7 series. If they got sportier, they bought a Z series, or if they had a family, they jumped into an X series SUV.
If you sell golf balls but have never been on a golf course, you have a problem. If you’ve been on a golf course but haven’t played golf with a golfer, you really have a problem. To find unexpected insights, you need to be the audience. Play 18 rounds with a golfer. Have lunch with them and do a lot of listening. Have drinks at the bar with them after the game and do even more listening. Do this with golfers everywhere you sell your golf balls and you’ll learn how to make better quality balls, better selling balls, and better everything else golf related that can be sold with golf balls. Had VW known young audiences really wanted a BMW, they would have found a different way to entice them to their brand, instead of eventually losing them by hoping they’d stay brand loyal.
Once you connect with your audience, stay connected. Keep being the “dream” for them. This is where VW got it wrong. Follow the hearts and minds of your audience. If people want a purple car, make a purple car. Don’t make a yellow car and then try to find an audience to sell it to. You’ll be chasing people around trying to get people to buy it and that gets expensive. You’ll fail. Meet the audience’s desires and needs to keep them buying from you. It’s important to note if your customer service is horrible, this is the time to fix it and make it perfect. Staying connected to your audience means being there for them. Always.
Know why your brand exists and what it stands for. Brands with a purpose win in the hearts and minds of its audience. If people don’t believe in your brand, you’re dead in the water. A brand with a purpose will always connect and stay connected with its audience. Your purpose must be inherent and related with your brand. By this we mean, if you sell cars, then finding purpose in saving the whales (while admirable) is a little far-fetched and probably not authentic. A purpose to make cars that help make travel easier and don’t pollute the environment would be a more plausible purpose.
It doesn’t matter if you’re selling cars, boats or vacations, instilling genuine inspiration and connecting to your audience on a deeper level is what inspires your audience to buy. Volkswagen fell short because they didn’t anticipate the true desires of their audience. What’s sufficient now will not always be enough, and when your audience decides what you’re selling is no longer valuable, you must have something better to offer them. Know what inspires their decision making and in turn, what they want now versus what they will want in the future. An audience that feels heard and understood will buy (and keep buying) from you as long as you remain connected to their desires and needs.