When Volkswagen needed an ad strategy for its new Routan minivan, there were a couple of options. It could go back to its van roots and embrace the counterculture vibe of its iconic 1960s Microbus, or come up with something completely different. In the end, Canada got the hippies. America got Brooke Shields.
VW’s return to North America’s minivan market sent mixed messages from the start. In 2001 the German automaker unveiled a funky concept vehicle with a retro Microbus design (complete with the iconic flat front), just as the classic Beetle was revived in the late 1990s. But when it proved too costly to bring to market, VW teamed with Chrysler to develop a new minivan. The Routan, manufactured at Chrysler’s Windsor plant, launched in Canada and the U.S. this month.
In the Canadian TV spot, aging hippies mope around a commune pining for what they’ve lost, namely their groovy people-mover of the 1960s. So when a young family drives by in a Routan the hippies can only look on in stunned disbelief. No wonder. Their beloved Microbus is now basically a modified Grand Caravan.
There’s no tie-dye in the U.S. ads, where VW has sought to distance the Routan from the Microbus concept vehicle. Instead, Shields, in Hollywood activist style, scolds parents for having babies solely to justify buying the van. “More people are having babies simply for the love of German engineering.”
So does VW think Canadians are more sentimental than Americans? The short answer is no. Peter Viney, a spokesperson for Volkswagen Canada, says the two divisions just use different ad agencies. “Our whole marketing position in Canada is that Volkswagen has dared to reinvent its classic van,” he says. But if it’s any consolation to those astonished hippies, company officials have hinted the Microbus still might return one day.