Audi’s Visual Hammer. An opportunity missed.

April 18, 2012


                In 1986, CBS broadcast a 60 Minutes segment about Audi entitled "Out of Control." The show chronicled the tendency of the Audi 5000 model to suffer from "unintended acceleration."

                (Three years later, the culprit was discovered. “The major cause," according to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "appears to have been drivers unknowingly stepping on the accelerator instead of the brake pedal.")

                Consumers, however, blamed the car instead of the driver. Audi sales in the American market plummeted. From 74,061 vehicles in 1985 to 12,283 vehicles in 1991.

                In 1990, Audi hired my Dad to help them revive the brand following the crisis and downfall. I remember the case well and was curious about what his exact ideas for Audi were so I dug up a copy of his report. Al’s advice: "Don't try to fight a bad perception. Just change the name."

                Not a bad idea. It has taken Audi another 20 years of struggling to finally get where it is today. Enthusiasts speak to the quality of the cars, but for decades the brand suffered from the crisis and a weak sounding name.

                What if they had listened to Al’s advice? What if they changed the name? What could they change it to? Sometimes there are no good alternatives.

                But in the case of Audi, they had something right under their noses. Audi had introduced a four-wheel-drive model called "Quattro" which Al thought was a good automobile name. And it is! It also focused the brand on a key feature: four-wheel drive.

                The Ries advice: change the Audi brand name to Quattro and import only four-wheel-drive vehicles to the United States.

                What was even more interesting was a single line buried in report: "Interestingly, the four-circle Audi symbol is a natural extension of the Quattro four-wheel-drive concept.”

                Too bad Al didn’t have me and a copy of my new Visual Hammer book to help him sell that idea to Audi. He could have made the point that four circles are a powerful visual hammer for a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a four-wheel-drive name. It would have been brilliant!