Close-up: Live Issue - Volkswagen returns to the art of the strapline to unite brand

VW hopes a small German phrase will help it achieve standout.

It might come at the end, or at the bottom, but the strapline is one of the most agonised-over and finely tuned elements of an ad. Get it right and you have encapsulated in a few words what a brand, or even an entire company, means to the world of consumers. Get it wrong and energies and investment are expended on a message that can infuriate, confuse or simply be ignored.

It's a challenge that Volkswagen has eschewed in its recent advertising history, relying on strong images and impactful advertising without the use of a strapline to promote its cars. But the German car manufacturer is about to make up for its recent strapline nakedness; the company's head office in Wolfsburg has decided to unite the marque globally under one line and from the summer all ads will carry the strapline: "Aus Liebe zum Automobil." ("For the love of cars.")

The line was introduced by Volkswagen's recently appointed chief executive, Bernd Pischetsrieder, to launch the new Golf in Germany last year. The aim was to create a more human feel for a marque that is viewed as fairly ubiquitous compared with other German brands such as Mercedes and Audi.

The strapline is now being rolled out across Europe. Jorian Murray, the managing director of DDB London, Volkswagen's UK creative agency, says: "There is already great affection for the Volkswagen brand in the UK and, as a consequence, the line in English isn't as resonant as it is in the home market. Instead, it was decided to use the original German to underline Volkswagen's provenance."

The move sees Volkswagen ape the successful "Vorsprung durch Technik" line that has been used by Audi since 1984. The line, which was introduced by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, was originally an old company motto, meaning "progress through technology", but using it in German provided the car with the engineering credentials it lacked 20 years ago.

"Vorsprung durch Technik" was so successful it was rolled out globally and has become ingrained in consumers' minds, giving the brand a real identity in the crowded car market. Volks-wagen will now be hoping that a similar strategy could work for its image, bolstering the Volkswagen heritage and distinguishing the name from other bland European marques.

The line will certainly enforce Volkswagen's German roots, but one creative observer doesn't think it's going to work on any other level: "Volkswagen was definitive in UK car advertising because it was one of the first to focus on the human aspect, a strategy that other car advertisers have since copied. Now that Volkswagen hasn't got that standout in the market, it needs to reinvent itself but the danger is that this German strapline will just be stuck on the end of the ads, adding nothing."

Indeed, there are those who would argue that there are very few straplines that actually do anything for a brand. Mark Lund, the chief executive of Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, says: "Research shows that consumer recall of straplines is actually very low and way out of proportion to the effort that goes into creating them."

Only occasionally will there be a much-celebrated stroke of genius, which does everything a strapline is meant to. It will sum up the essence of the brand but, further, it will encapsulate the attitude of the entire company: what it is and what it wants to do. In addition, it will differentiate itself from competitor brands as well as serving as a rallying cry internally, becoming something of a company mission statement.

Examples of good lines spring quickly to mind: Tesco's "Every little helps" (created by Lowe); Nike's "Just do it" (by Wieden & Kennedy), "Beanz Meanz Heinz" (by Young & Rubicam) and the honest admission by Avis, "we're number two, so we try harder" (by Doyle Dane Bernbach).

"The impact of 'every little helps' lies in the fact that it's more than just a summary of a 30-second television ad," Jim Carroll, BBH's chairman, says. "It nails the company's aspirations of quality, service and value while talking in a modest, English way that consumers can relate to."

Similarly, the Heinz line speaks as a consumer would speak, in an almost accidental, rather than a constructed way, while "just do it" is a line that translates into everything that Nike stands for, as at home on a shoe box or T-shirt as it is on a TV ad.

Such lines are unarguably beneficial to a brand, but Lund believes "a good strapline gives no more to the brand than it took out of it. It's the summing up rather than the application of something new".

In other words, the good straplines arise from products that are already well branded, resonating and taking root because consumers can see the truth in them. As a result, the corporate, chest-beating straplines, which are generally the rule, don't get any such traction and are quickly forgotten.

"Given the lack of recall for a bad line, its failing is unlikely to damage a brand though," Mark Tomblin, the director of strategy at Publicis, says.

In fact, the problem for straplines could actually be in the case of good ones. "Beanz Meanz Heinz" has become inseparable from the product and last autumn consumers voted to keep the line in use. For Heinz, though, the strapline is arguably limiting, underlining the association between Heinz and beans despite the fact that Heinz makes a host of other food products.

In the case of Volkswagen, the new strapline will have to work hard to find its way into the consumer's consciousness. If it is found that "Aus Liebe zum Automobil" sums up everything consumers feel about Volkswagen, then DDB will be on to a winner.

If not then it will join the likes of "Let's make things better" and "Designed for living, engineered to last" in the ever-mounting pile of lines that the consumer recognises but can't quite pin to a brand.