The Autostadt, brand spaces, and marketing

Following my recent trip to Germany, I’ve spent the last month thinking about the idea of brand spaces. By brand space, I mean the use of a space – be it a single store, a building, or a multi-building space, that a business uses to establish or grow a marketing relationship with their consumers.

Although I hate to fly, I love to travel. (As I like to tell people, “I like to be places”.) I took a few days this year between work events to visit Volkswagen’s hometown of Wolfsburg, Germany, and the Autostadt, located there, as well as VW’s museum. A child of the 1970’s, there is a special place in my heart for the Volkswagen brand. My parents owned a VW Fastback before I was born, and a Dasher and Westfalia camper when I was young, and that’s when I fell in love with cars… So there are considerable emotional links for me associated with the brand.

I had hoped to visit the factory, but it was closed while I was going to be there. But the trip was still worthwhile to me, just to visit the Autostadt.

If you haven’t heard of the Autostadt before, you may not completely understand what this place is. The Autostadt, which is completely owned by VW, was first opened in 2000.

If you’ve ever been to Epcot (as it was created, not as Walt imagined it), or a World’s Fair, you can get an idea what the Autostadt is like. It reminded me more than a little bit of Expo ’86, in Vancouver. Imagine an automotive Epcot, where each brand has a pavilion, instead of each country. It was apparent that brands each had a very different idea of what to do with their pavilion. (A few really struggle to tell a cohesive story.) But Škoda and Porsche’s pavilions, in particular, tell stories that really align with their brands. (The lack of any Bentley presence was odd to me, given that even Ducati, Lamborghini, and Bugatti – brands people often aren’t familiar with the ownership of – are represented at the Autostadt.)

When you enter the Autostadt, you go through a main pavilion to the “park” itself, where each of the pavilions are. It’s much like any Disney park. Single point of entry, and once you’re inside, it’s rather easy to get disoriented. Thankfully since it is situated next to the factory with its tall smokestacks, and the Autostadt itself features two large car towers that store 800 cars, it isn’t quite as mentally all-encompassing as Disney’s parks.

Supposedly, VW spent nearly US$500M initially building the Autostadt. What I can tell you is that they’ve created a fascinating tourist destination for car fans, car-tolerant families of car fans, and families picking up a VW for delivery. An on-premises Ritz-Carlton (with subsidized rooms for those picking up a car), numerous restaurants, several stores and a large design museum create a space that can occupy a day, at least, for fans of one or more of the VW brands. In essence, it’s a brand theme park.

As I walked the Autostadt, I began thinking about the fact that I paid what I did… to visit a marketing exercise. Like Apple and their retail stores, VW built the Autostadt to establish a physical presence for their brand(s) with consumers that want to engage with it. Sure, it’s synthetic. (So is Disney.) Sure, it’s contrived. Some of the brands honestly fail at making the most of their opportunity at the Autostadt (looking at you, Lamborghini), but in terms of creating consumer engagement, it’s an interesting concept.

This all loops back to the concept of brand spaces. A Disney theme park. An Apple Store. More and more consumer brands are struggling with how to nurture a brand space to be. Gateway tried for years. Sony did too. Microsoft tried in San Francisco, then tried again with their current foray into retail. I think that a brand space is a space that is welcoming, and created in a manner that reflects the design aesthetics of that brand. But you can’t force it. You can’t just riff off of Apple’s design aesthetic to build a space that consumers will just swarm to. Your brand space needs to reflect your brand, and what consumers like about your brand.

Years ago, Best Buy had a brand space. You walked in, and it felt like Best Buy. You either liked it or hated it. But now Best Buy, like most big box retailers, has turned into a micro-mall, infected with store-within-a-store parasites, compromising their own overarching brand. I believe that the creation of a unique brand space is an important component of brands that want to – and will increasingly need to – stay directly engaged with their consumers.

Bear in mind, there are brands, like Intel, that make no sense to establish a brand space for. Intel, like BASF, is really a wholesale brand, no matter how much people wish it wasn’t. Focusing on consumer-level messaging if you aren’t selling to consumers is tilting at windmills. (Here again, Microsoft’s massive presence in enterprise and struggles in the consumer space post-XP make a similar argument.)

I’m not saying that every consumer brand needs to build a retail presence or a theme park. PLEASE, no. But I am saying that it will become increasingly important for brands to consider when and how engagement with their consumers, in a physical way, makes sense, given their brand, their consumers, and the purchasing cycle of those consumers.

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