Vorsprung durch… advertising.
When Sir John Hegarty; doyen of UK advertising and co-founder of renowned ad-agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty took on the Audi creative account back in 1982 the Ingolstadt marque’s image was somewhat nebulous. Yes, they had launched the trendsetting Quattro coupé and were fast gaining a reputation for unorthodox engineering ideals, but they faced as precipitous an ascent to the summit of the automotive ziggurat as Infiniti does today.
BBH’s brief was to change all that, so Hegarty visited Audi’s headquarters to soak up the ambience and generally get inspired. He told The Guardian newspaper in 2012; “I had gone to Ingolstadt and I saw a very old faded poster on the wall that someone had left up there… I saw this line ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’. They said that was an old advertising line but ‘we don’t use it any more’. And it stuck in my brain.“
On his return, attempting to unify the all-conquering Quattro with Audi’s new aerodynamic 100 saloon, he suggested the Vorsprung line, but was met with considerable resistance. Worried it sounded more like the name of a Kraftwerk track, sceptics suggested it would alienate buyers. Test audiences appeared to back this up – people actively disliked it. However, Hegarty’s clients at Audi UK were willing to take a risk and the addition of the end line… “as they say in Germany” spoken in the ironic tones of actor, Geoffrey Palmer made it amusing. QED. Nowadays of course, Kraftwerk are (rightly) viewed as sonic innovators, not just an odd bunch of German computer geeks, so we were wrong on both counts.
The spots of course became a cultural phenomenon and the Vorsprung ad-line is one of the best known and longest lasting in advertising. It has appeared in films, TV and contemporary music. It is unusual in that Audi use it globally; going as far as to trademark it in 2010, following a lengthy legal battle in the European Court of Justice to obtain ownership of the phrase. They would be mad to abandon it of course – after all, it neatly encapsulates everything Audi want us to believe they stand for.
The surprising aspect of all this is just how long it took other German marques to jump on the home language bandwagon. It’s only comparatively recently that Volkswagen globally adopted the term, “Das Auto” – which is fine except that the marque name itself renders the tagline somewhat redundant. Still, it kind of works. Opel; a far more desperate case however, now proclaims from the rooftops “Wir Leben Autos”; which again isn’t terrible, but as a car manufacturer, you’d really expect them to say that. If you didn’t live for cars, what business do you have making them?
BMW on the other hand, having abandoned their tried and trusted “Ultimate Driving Machine” positioning with the ill-advised “Joy” campaign, have now gravitated to “Sheer Driving Pleasure”. Perhaps they’ve realised that the old tagline no longer represented the commercial realities facing them in 2014, but nevertheless have never made any real attempt to emphasise their origins by co-opting some random German phrase.
Similarly, Porsche don’t feel the need to say anything more than their name – we in pavlovian desire are expected to salivate at the mere mention. And Mercedes-Benz? “The Best or Nothing”. Sounds a little bleak doesn’t it? Still, at least they’re not in the business of “Creating Amazing”, or “Good to be Bad” like some of their more confused rivals. It’s a funny old business, this advertising lark.
Clearly Audi haven’t got everything right over the past thirty-odd years, but in terms of their ad-message, they’ve been absolutely spot on. Because it has to be said, without BBH’s cleverly wrought Audi commercials, the four rings of Ingolstadt would probably not sit where they are today. They owe a great deal of that success to an observant and smart advertising brain, one who could see what they themselves had ignored. A wholly convincing reflection of themselves.
The Guardian 18th Sept 2012