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Volkswagen Crowdsources China’s Car of the Future

Client: Volkswagen Group China
Agency: Proximity China/Goodstein & Partners
Build brand loyalty and create a differentiated brand image for VW China by tapping into China’s highly engaged network of online communities

The Goal: Trust is a two-way street—a concept implicitly understood and put into practice by Volkswagen China with its courageous, multi-tiered marketing. Case in point: the much-lauded and ongoing “People’s Car Project” marketing campaign.

At its base, People’s Car Project—still going strong after its 2011 kickoff—is an online social and CRM program created by Proximity China and Goodstein & Partners that allows Chinese “netizens” to model and share their own one-of-a-kind car designs; among the many thousands of ideas submitted was a ladybug-shaped car with antennae and one shaped like an alien spacecraft. But tightly woven around that core is an intricate multichannel campaign that skillfully incorporates and brings to life VW’s brand values: to create cars for the people and by the people.

Using a democratic online voting system, VW sourced the most creative, ambitious concept car ideas and actually designed demos, including a spherical wheel-less two-seater “Hover Car” that reacts with underground metals and minerals to float down the street at speed. According to Karl-Thomas Neumann, former CEO of Volkswagen China, the ultimate goal is to harness the country’s creativity as inspiration for real cars on the road.

“The People’s Car Project, at its heart, is a program about innovation and originality,” says Peggy Yang, communications director at VW China. “It has opened a direct line of communication between the Chinese people and Volkswagen. When we’re able to best understand consumers’ needs and desires for their cars, we can innovate cars of unparalleled value, cars that truly fulfill their dreams.”

However, to get to that point, the brand needed to consider and tackle several challenges unique to China. Top of the list are market proliferation and consumer loyalty; according to Yang, “there are more auto brands in China than anywhere else in the world.”

“Brand loyalty in China is low as [it’s] still in a young stage in terms of auto culture,” Yang says. “Chinese consumers are still less experienced in terms of brand relationship, so establishing deep emotional connections with [them] is challenging.”

But for all the challenges, there are also singular opportunities in China, a country with a population of more than a billion potential customers, making it the world’s largest market in terms of prospects and the number and growth of Internet users.

“What is particularly striking are the high levels of engagement in China’s online communities,” Yang says. “This makes China an ideal market for a program like the People’s Car Project. It’s only natural that such a project would begin in China.”

The Channel: The national campaign tapped a dizzying array of touchpoints—TV spots, social media outreach, online films featuring submitted ideas, online ads, events, augmented reality, mobile apps, a PR push, toy car giveaways, viral videos, guerrilla marketing, and outdoor—but nothing was undertaken gratuitously. The purpose and particular business benefits of each channel was carefully considered, explains Alex Csergo, Proximity Beijing’s managing director.

“We reviewed each touchpoint as part of a user journey, as well as its ability to deliver on specific KPIs,” he says. “For example, whilst banners were good for delivering click-throughs, [event-driven marketing] communications were better at driving registration and engagement.”

Yang says integration is what fuels the People’s Car Project. “Every consumer, through their vast social network, can also become a media channel,” she says. “Consumers are exposed to the same marketing message in much more proliferated ways than ever before and not one single channel is dominant; integration is crucial so the message is not just broadcasted, but amplified and magnified,” Yang explains.

That’s why the auto manufacturer looked to its customers for ideas—and most important, listened to what they were saying, letting the campaign develop organically based on feedback from the people.

“It’s a universe of content, where one story leads to the next [and] it all started with a question: ‘What car do you want?’” says George Warga, executive creative director at Goodstein & Partners and Proximity Beijing. “Everything is connected.”

The Strategy: VW turned to Proximity to develop a localized marketing campaign that could engage on a macro level over a long period of time. Yang stresses that despite the campaign’s impressive engagement levels, VW didn’t embark on the People’s Car Project with the intention of generating numbers.

“The People’s Car Project, from its very beginning, was a dialogue with the Chinese people, [and] we launched it to better understand their needs and desires so that we could better innovate cars,” Yang says. “You could say our chief goal was to deepen Volkswagen’s emotional connection with the Chinese people.”

Proximity also made a concentrated effort to keep the People’s Car Project website as simple as possible, with an interface that could be easily grasped and wouldn’t frustrate new users.

“People are not designers. People are messy. People want to play around for a second before they lose interest and wander off to the next thing,” says Warga. “We cherish every second we have with them and make it worthwhile.”

The Results: While crowdsourcing can be risky for brands—there’s always the potential that consumers won’t engage—the People’s Car Project had no such trouble, with more than 160,000 creative auto innovation ideas shared so far. More than 30 million people have engaged with the campaign since its launch two years ago. Almost every touchpoint brought in staggering results; for example, a single video about the Hover Car and its young designer, student Wang Jia, garnered 18 million views and increased site registrations by 21,000.

The campaign also won multiple Caples Awards in 2011 and 2012, including a gold medal for the viral video marketing category.

More than a traditional marketing campaign in the basic sense of the words—say, a few touchpoints with the goal of shifting a certain amount of product—the People’s Car Project has become somewhat of a movement, as evidenced by the exceptionally high engagement levels.

“[It’s] part of a greater trend in Chinese culture, which is moving into an era of extraordinary originality and innovativeness,” says Yang. “The People’s Car Project is in many ways a celebration of this.”

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