SXSW Event Recap: Volkswagen Hosts Lucasfilm Executive Creative Director Doug Chiang

“Drive what rebels fly.” That was the slogan of an ad campaign for the Volkswagen ID.4 in partnership with Lucasfilm for Andor. At SXSW, representatives from Volkswagen, Disney, and Lucasfilm took the stage to talk about this unique marketing collaboration, and why the force is strong with this partnership. The panel was moderated by Cynthia Littleton (Co-Editor in Chief of Variety) and featured a conversation between Gilbert Heise (Volkswagen CMO) and Ty Ervin (Walt Disney Studios Vice President of Marketing Partnerships). Joining in briefly were Doug Chiang (Lucasfilm Cxecutive Creative Director) and Kevin Lane Keller (Professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College).

Volkswagen’s history with Star Wars briefly preceded Disney’s 2011 purchase of Lucasfilm with a Super Bowl ad featuring a child dressed as Darth Vader using “the force” to power up the new Passat. But what you’ll notice in comparison between that ad campaign and more recent ones is that it’s not characters in-universe engaging with the vehicle, but a child dressed like one. As Ty Ervin put it, Disney’s interest in marketing partnerships is driven by making an event out of a film or show’s release, with partners sought out who can help tap into a similar level of nostalgia while remaining focussed on the future. For an automobile company that has its roots in the midcentury and rose back into prominence around the new millennium, Volkswagen was a perfect fit.

Disney’s approach to marketing is a little different than the days before their ownership of Lucasfilm. Character integrity is important to the company, never wanting to break the trust of its core fans. So when it came to launching the ID. Buzz, an electric evolution of the popular VW Bus, pairing the concept with Star Wars was a no-brainer. But since this is a terrestrial car, making it make sense within the Star Wars story required some thinking outside the box. The solution came from multiple angles. Since Obi-Wan Kenobi was kicking off its marketing campaign, the decision was made to have the vehicle featured as R2-D2 and C-3PO walked off set. With the front of the car resembling a smiling face, the droids were instantly drawn in. The fact that a new, yet-to-be-seen droid was featured in the campaign, L0-LA59, the ad instantly got engagement from Star Wars’ core fans.

The other angle that made this ad a big success is the fact that actor Ewan McGregor is a huge Volkswagen fan and one of their brand ambassadors. His enthusiasm for the VW fleet is such that he even converted a classic Beetle into an electric car. So while you’ll probably never see a Star Wars character driving a VW vehicle, this partnership allowed the framing device behind why the ID. Buzz was on the set of Obi-Wan Kenobi make complete sense, even featuring the actor getting behind the wheel and driving the all-electric bus away.

The marketing campaign for the ID. Buzz in collaboration with Star Wars was in development for around two years, culminating with the debut of two themed vehicles at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim in 2022. This is where Lucasfilm Executive Creative Director Doug Chiang joined the conversation to talk about the collaboration that resulted in an Obi-Wan and Darth Vader custom version of the ID. Buzz. The evolution of the design began with exploring using each character’s iconic lightsaber colors, blue and red. Over time, the idea shifted into making each vehicle like a ship they would fly, giving Obi-Wan’s a chrome esthetic while Darth Vader’s had a more sinister Republic vibe to it. One of Doug’s favorite moments of working with Volkswagen was the fact that they approach their vehicles like a character, which is the same principal behind every ship and droid in Star Wars. During Doug’s portion of the conversation, attendees also got to see a behind-the-scenes video of the making of these two vehicles, with English subtitles (online, it’s only available in German).

While the panel was primarily aimed at marketers, including Kevin Lan Keller’s thoughts on the success of the ID. Buzz/Star Wars campaign, there was a bit of a tease towards the future. Volkswagen is once again partnering with Star Wars, this time on a campaign in synch with Season 3 of The Mandalorian for the ID.4. There will be a new vehicle unveiled at Star Wars Celebration in London, and Gilbert Heise teased that there could be a Star Wars edition of a VW vehicle on the market in the near future.

Laughing Place will be at Star Wars Celebration Europe, so stay tuned for more news from Star Wars and their collaboration with Volkswagen. Click here for more coverage from SXSW.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).