What Volkswagen’s ’Think Small’ Campaign Teaches Copywriters
If you’re a student of advertising or someone who likes researching brand origins, Volkswagen’s ‘Think Small’ marketing campaign is one you’ve probably heard of before. If not, you’re in for a treat! The Think Small campaign is widely regarded as one of—if not the--greatest advertising campaigns of all time. It’s what put Volkswagen on the map as a brand and turned what many people saw as an ugly, tiny car into one everyone was clamoring to own.
More important than the success of Volkswagen’s Think Small campaign are the marketing lessons behind it. Universities consistently use it as an example of highly effective marketing, for both graphic designers and copywriters. Today, copywriters especially can still learn a great deal from the original Think Small ad campaign.
Origins of the ‘Think Small’ campaign
In a time of veritable ‘land boats’ like the Chevy Bel Air and the Cadillac El Dorado, the VW Beetle was regarded as laughable by the American public. Consumers wanted big cars with big engines, and they were willing to pay big prices for them. Volkswagen simply couldn’t compete. So, the company tried a different tactic and decided to sell the concept of an ‘honest car.’
Think Small was the brainchild of an art director named Helmut Krone and a copywriter named Julian Koenig. Krone and Koenig worked at an advertising agency called DDB in New York in the 1950s, where Volkswagen maintained an account. The two were tasked by Volkswagen to jumpstart sales of the VW Beetle. They knew the car was considered an oddity at the time, so they decided to embrace it.
Krone and Koenig took the concept of an ‘honest car’ literally. They looked at the VW Beetle for what it was. Small. Ugly. Affordable. In short: everything that modern American cars were not. They took all these traits and “weaknesses” and turned them into strengths. Differentiators. And right at the top of the first rendition of the soon-to-be-iconic campaign, they showcased the biggest, most abject criticism of the car: its size.
‘Think Small’ rolled out in 1959, with expectations near zero. Helmut Krone actually left the country before the rollout, fearing he’d be ridiculed for how terrible it was. The rest, as they say, is history. The ad didn’t bomb—it blew up! To this day, it’s still considered the greatest ad campaign of all time.
Why was this campaign so successful?
Think Small was successful for three reasons. First, it was the first ad campaign to ever embrace criticism and spin it into positive messaging, breaking the fourth wall between the brand and its audience. It was openly self-deprecating in a way that turned out to be endearing.
Second, it embodied its message wholly. An obvious example is the juxtaposition of a small car in relation to the ‘Think Small’ tagline, but an even better one is the fact that the ad was printed in black and white, at a time when color ads were the industry standard. Americans saw VW as a cheap, inferior brand—printing the ad in B/W was just another way to embrace the messaging.
Finally, the simplicity of the ad is what gave it power. Other ads at the time featured loud pictures, huge swaths of copy and all manner of distracting layouts, meant to capture readers’ attention. The Volkswagen ad was simple, organized and very digestible. Uncomplicated. It’s part of the reason the ad got so much traction, by virtue of being a break from the clutter.
Copywriting takeaways from the Think Small campaign
While all advertisers can learn from the success of the Think Small campaign, copywriters especially should model their craft on it. Several purposeful techniques made the messaging of this original ad poignant and highly memorable.
For starters, the tagline is just two words, with a period at the end to signal a full stop. It’s a simple yet powerful statement—especially as a play on words (think big). Below that, the copy itself is arranged in indented paragraphs, no more than a sentence long. Each of these is a quick-hitter that’s easily digestible and highly impactful.
The copy itself is very purposeful. It tells a short story while demonstrating value to the reader. It makes you visualize the car—chiefly by first telling you what not to expect, then teasing what you can expect. This led to one of the most industry-changing innovations for ad copywriters: the shift from feature-rich copy to benefits-driven copy. Marketing would never be the same.
“It’s Ugly But It Gets You There”
The Think Small campaign is what put Volkswagen on the map, but it’s far from the only successful campaign the company launched. Following Think Small, the brand launched another campaign with the tagline “it’s ugly but it gets you there.” It was another example poking fun at the oddities of the Volkswagen Beetle, showcasing candid awareness by the brand.
Though not as successful as Think Small, the campaign gained a lot of traction riding the wave of the original ads. The Beetle was now an iconic car. The VW logo was so well-known that new ads didn’t even mention the brand’s name. Think Small paved the way for broad marketing by breaking down the barriers of brand recognition. After that, it was up to copywriters not to provide information, but to sell.
Think small is still big today
Perhaps the most amazing takeaway from the Think Small campaign is that even today, Volkswagen still uses the same ad layout. Grab any Volkswagen ad from 1960 to 2020 and you’ll see a striking resemblance: an image that covers ¾ of the page and ad copy at the bottom on the remaining ¼. That’s how powerful Think Small was! 60 years later and the company still stands by the original design.
If you look closely, the copywriting hasn’t changed much either. Short sentences, structured in tiny paragraphs. Snappy, tight taglines. A conversational tone. Volkswagen has a style that works. Why change it? It’s an example any copywriter can and should look to as what defines effective branding. Why do you think schools and agencies still preach the success of Think Small today?