Friday, August 12, 2005

Moonraker group to help VW determine what U.S. customers want

Text from AutoWeek.
A band of Volkswagen specialists - named Moonraker, after a 1955 Ian Fleming James Bond spy novel - is traveling the United States in search of marketing insights.

The group's task over 13 months is to determine VW's vehicle needs in the United States as well as to understand this market. Moonraker consists of 22 Germans and an American.

The group arrived here in April.

VW says the group's goal is "to draw up a vehicle and business concept for the American market that would boost volume, earnings and brand reputation."

The longer term results could change the way VW develops vehicles.

VW says it's too early to have Moonraker members talk to the press. But the company says team members must "detect forthcoming trends, experience the customer's demands directly and draw conclusions from them as to the direction project development must take."

The team is based near Malibu, Calif., and is traveling through the country making extended stays in various locations.

Moonraker is the pet project of VW Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder, who lamented that VW's $1.29 billion loss in North America last year was unacceptable.

The group is headed by Stefan Liske, director of group product strategy and former head of BMW's X3 SUV project.

Hunt is mentor

One of the group's mentors is Len Hunt, who heads Volkswagen of America and assigned one of his sales and marketing specialists to the group.

According to VW, team members' initial comments show Moonraker is quickly discovering the VW brand doesn't have the appeal in America that it has in Germany or Europe.

That is just what Hunt wants to hear.

"They are really trying to understand what makes America tick and how the market is evolving," Hunt says. "There are a lot of shifts going on, and we are trying to get in front of the curve."

Moonraker's main goal, Hunt says, is to build a cadre of key employees in Germany who understand the U.S. market. That will complement VW brand boss Wolfgang Bernhard's experience as COO of the Chrysler group.

"They'll go back really, really understanding the market," Hunt says.

The trick, he adds, is to preserve VW's European character, which customers like, while addressing U.S.-specific needs.

Listen and learn

In VW's internal corporate German publication "Autogramm," one team member says he didn't realize how badly VW is doing in the United States until he arrived here.

"I didn't discover the real urgency of the situation until we experienced the market firsthand once we got here and talked to Volkswagen dealers," says Arne Harms of VW's quality assurance department.

"We are trying to sell products developed for the European market on the American market."

Other carmakers are meeting U.S. customer demands better than VW - especially since they are developing unique vehicles, Harms says.

Mathias Grosser, who works in VW's individualization department, says he was amazed that "we still don't really cater to the customer's wishes in America - just as the Japanese didn't really cater to our tastes 30 years ago."

Understanding VW's image

Moonraker still is addressing the basics, especially finding out what customer groups VW must target and what vehicle concept "suits the North American market so that we can maximize our market effect."

To understand the VW image, Moonraker already has talked with people in 24 cities.

The Moonraker team isn't just talking to dealers and customers.

It also is looking at successful companies such as Apple, Nike, Starbucks and 3M.

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