By capturing the restoration of a loyal customer’s car, the iconic brand found an effective way to tell the story of its consumers and products
In 2016, Volkswagen was looking to bounce back after its corporate image took a heavy hit from a high-profile emissions scandal. To win back public support, it wasn’t enough for VW to tell the public how much it valued its customers’ experience and their continued loyalty; it needed to find a way to show them.
This led to the creation of the VW Newsroom, an in-house journalism hub designed to help tell the story of the brand and create opportunities for earned media. It also involved collaboration with several teams across the organization.
“Something my team was heavily involved with was taking the story of the people that drive our cars and bringing them to life,” says Patrick Pho, senior video content producer at Volkswagen of America. “We think all our owners have a story to tell.”
During a media sweep, the VW Newsroom team came across a local San Diego news story about Kathleen Brooks, a 72-year-old woman who had been driving the same 1967 Volkswagen Beetle for 50 years. The car, which she affectionally called “Annie” after its ruby-red coat, was in disrepair. The original news story featured shots of its faded paint job, broken hubcaps and pitted chrome bumpers.
The media relations team referred the story to Pho and his team, who were in the middle of working on developing a series called “Owner Spotlights.” After contacting and meeting with Brooks, it became clear that there was more to her story than her impressive relationship with her car. Her attachment was deep and grounded in memories of how, even during some of the most difficult times in her life—including marriage, divorce and three bouts of cancer—Annie always got her where she needed to go.
From there, VW’s media relations and marketing communications teams came up with a plan: Restore Annie back to roadworthy condition at VW’s factory in Puebla, Mexico, so Brooks could continue to drive her for years to come. They would document every step of the process on film, with the intention of capturing media attention that would emphasize the lasting significance of the brand to its customers.
Upon hearing about the plan, Pho and his team jumped into its implementation. “I was ecstatic,” he says. “What a way to really honor and recognize someone who has not only been a loyal customer but has gone through so much in her life.”
After Brooks agreed to the remodel, VW and its partners needed to find the best angle from which to capture the process. Brooks’s warm personality and her love for Annie would be central, but the longevity of the VW brand, and important technical elements of the car itself, would also need to be featured.
Pho emphasizes the value his team placed on collaboration with their partners and other departments within the organization in developing and creating the campaign. One such partnership was with First & 42nd, Edelman’s corporate social responsibility unit, which assisted in facilitating contact with Brooks. Mike Million, director and producer at VW’s production partner Third Story Films, wanted the ad to resemble a documentary.
“A big challenge was to try to ground it and make it feel real, but not like a reality show where she was winning a prize—even though she was getting her car refurbished,” he says. “I wanted to keep it grounded in her emotions, which I think we were able to do.”
In October 2017, Third Story Films captured Annie’s emotional departure from Kathleen’s home. From the time the car arrived in Mexico, restorations would take 11 months. The project was led by Augusto Zamudio, an engineer in the mechatronics shop in Puebla.
The production team captured the mechanical process on film, including interviews with Zamudio. “We kept close tabs on the progress in Mexico,” Pho says. “It was so exciting to get updates from the plant and see the excitement our colleagues had.”
The project’s timeline presented an enormous logistical and creative challenge for the production team. “In traditional marketing, you develop a campaign and then you get the green light to execute,” Pho says. “We had to trust that this was a great story, and sometimes great stories take a while to simmer. This would be a project that would take a while but, in the end, it was going to be so satisfying.”
Annie’s restorations were completed in November 2018. According to the VW campaign, Zamudio’s team replaced 40% of the car’s parts and restored 357 other pieces.
In facilitating the reveal, the filmmakers were tasked with achieving a dual objective: Authentically display Brooks’s love for Annie and exhibit the striking results of the restoration. But they also had to contend with a series of logistical challenges, including preventing Brooks from seeing her car before the cameras were able to capture the moment.
“Planning the reveal was complicated,” Million says. “We had a small crew and not a lot of control over the area we were in. We sort of had one shot at it.”
When Brooks saw Annie for the first time, she quickly became emotional. The footage also succeeded in showing off the updates to the car as Zamudio and his colleague gave Brooks an overview of the restorations.
“They did such beautiful work on [Annie] and put such care into every bit of it, and I think that meant a lot to her,” Million says.
Three days after Brooks and Annie were reunited in San Diego, VW released 40 photos and eight minutes of B-roll footage, with the goal of capturing earned media coverage. More than 100 stories appeared in media outlets and VW’s media content saw more than 1.3 billion media impressions. The B-roll cuts from Third Story hit 1.4 million views.
One week later, the VW Newsroom posted its own story and video across its social media channels. Video content posted on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter saw a combined 1.6 million views.
This year, the campaign won a Shorty Award for best auto campaign and Million won an Emmy Award from The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Pacific Southwest Chapter for best direction of a short-form film.
Pho and his team recently created a broadcast ad for the FIFA Women’s World Cup and believes that the VW Newsroom’s recent accomplishments are testaments to the success of “Annie the Beetle,” since the campaign solidified their ability to collaborate with groups across the organization and with agency partners. His team is working on the “Something Big” campaign, which seeks to promote VW’s new electric vehicles while telling the story of the brand’s commitment to partner with social causes. “‘Annie the Beetle’ was a story that very much aligns up to that, so it could be seen as an early herald of that direction,” Pho says.
Pho also believes the campaign achieved his team’s intention to promote the values of Volkswagen. “‘Annie the Beetle’ has boosted the brand by presenting a real human story that encapsulates what Volkswagen stands for,” he says. “We’re here for you for the long ride. It’s a great example of showing, not telling, as well as standing by our products and our customers.”