One of the most difficult tasks of being a creative in this highly-competitive digital marketing industry is the art of creating ads. Not only is it the single most exciting part of the job, but you also get to pitch crazy ideas with your teammates to create a strategic ad campaign. The process can be a bit draining, but to have that ‘eureka!’ moment is always an amazing experience. One of my greatest creative inspirations is the story of the ‘Think Small’ campaign by Bill Bernbach and the DDB Team. Their legendary ad campaign became so revolutionary that it started a creative revolution in the ad industry.
When the war ended in the early 1950s, it caused a steady rise in the US economy. The booming economy meant that more businesses were putting more products in the market; and with various brands on the shelves, business owners had to think of ways to drive sales and stand out from the competition. To do this, they had to advertise using print ads in magazines and newspapers.
Early advertisers used to draw images and construct copies that were very concept based and highly focused on the USP approach. The idea of USP or Unique Selling Proposition is to highlight a certain feature that’s different from the competition. Although this strategy encourages a straightforward voice in the ads, it has a tendency to limit creativity. This approach was effective for some time, but it quickly became the most ‘textbook’ approach in the ad industry.
Bill Bernbach refused to follow the traditional USP strategy. In fact, he left his former company because he wanted a new approach in advertising. As a creative director, he believed in giving life to ads with creativity. To pursue this philosophy, he founded his own advertising agency along with James Doyle and Maxwell Dane and called it DDB (Doyle Dane Bernbach).
One of their first projects came from Carl Hahn of Volkswagen. When they were given the assignment of introducing the Volkswagen Beetle to the United States, Bernbach immediately called two of his best men, copywriter Julian Kroenig and art director Helmut Krone.
Before Volkswagen entered the American market, the ads for the automotive industry in the US were all about images of large cars, grandeur, and luxury. The Volkswagen Beetle, on the other hand, was the complete opposite of a standard American car. It was a 5-seater economy car that was initially conceptualized by Adolf Hitler himself. Since it was labeled as the ‘Fuhrer’s car’, it became more difficult for the DDB team to find a different angle for the campaign. Although the Beetle was a huge hit in Europe, it was still a challenge to introduce it in the American market even after Hitler’s death.
The car’s unique miniature design became a pivotal point for the campaign. It became Kroenig’s inspiration for the most famous copy of all time. With just two words, the DDB team successfully introduced the Volkswagen Beetle in a different light.
“Think Small” became the official title of the ad campaign. It was also the very first copy of the series of the Volkswagen Beetle ads. When Kroenig passed this copy to Krone, he was not satisfied and even threatened to leave the project. So, Bernbach had to step in to convince Krone to come up with the layouts for the campaign. For the final layout, Krone used an unconventional image and a traditional 3-column layout for the text content. It was very minimalistic and far from the conventional automobile ads. They even printed it out in black and white because Volkswagen didn’t have budget for colored printing.
When the ad came out, critics in the ad industry were skeptical about it. Outside of the advertising community, however, people reacted differently. Everyone was raving about the single-paged ad of the tiny car from Germany! The campaign became so successful that their sales skyrocketed and many became interested in being a Volkswagen dealer.
The genius of this ad can be seen if we closely observe its different elements. Firstly, the simplicity of the layout is so puzzling that you’d stop to look at it to read the whole content. Second, the text content is so convincing that it would sound like an actual Volkswagen dealer is selling you the product. Lastly, the logo was awkwardly placed in the third column for a more effective brand recall. Every aspect was concocted in a brilliant way that it broke the standards and started a creative revolution in the advertising industry.
The premise of the ‘Think Small’ ad was quite simple–they wanted to present the product in an honest way with a self-deprecating humor that was completely relatable to the audience. The ad is so brilliant that even though the call-to-action is so subtle, you will get lured into buying a beetle.
In the years that followed, the ‘Think Small’ campaign went on to continue without its original copywriter. Julian Kroenig eventually left DDB to start his own agency; and so, Bob Levenson took his place–an equally brilliant copywriter who managed to stay true to the voice of the Volkswagen ads.
In the following years, the Volkswagen ads kept consistent with the witty and out-of-the box ads that cemented its place in the advertising history as the most revolutionary ad campaign of the 20th century.
The influence of the Think Small campaign is still prominent in the ads that we see today. Even in our team (shoutout to the digigals of i4 asia!), we are greatly inspired by this story. In every ad that we create, we always make sure that we put in a creative heart and we stay true to the brand. If your company needs any help with digital marketing, just let us know! Also, I hope you stay tuned to our Facebook page and blog because we’ll be talking more about how we pulled off our previous projects and ad campaigns.
Now, to cap off our story, what can we take from the legendary ad campaign of the DDB Team and the underdog car from Germany?
The reason behind DDB’s success is they weren’t afraid to be fiercely creative and genuine. Let’s also not forget that they dared to bend the rules. You might have heard this phrase many times in your career, but it’s absolutely true that taking risks and going ‘out-of the-box’ can pay off in the marketing and advertising industry. If we are to survive in this industry, then we must not forget these reminders! It’s a challenge, but if we continue to let creativity be our driving force then we’ll thrive for sure.
See you on our next blog!
Hamilton, (Mar, 2015). The ad that changed advertising. A Medium Corporation. Retrieved May 25, 2018 from https://bit.ly/2qTzEpr.