Das Issues: What’s Next for Volkswagen?

So you’ve heard about Volkswagen’s little problem, yes? Just in case you haven’t, here’s a quick recap: they installed software into millions of cars to “beat” emissions tests. This software was built around an algorithm that essentially “knew” when it was being tested. The algorithm kicked ON for tests, and then shut OFF in typical driving conditions. When it was off, the cars were not very clean at all, pumping out up to 40X the legal limit of nitrogen oxide emissions. Yikes. Word on the street is that VW has been up to this kind of “engineering” for as long as six years. And now, details are emerging about nearly a million more manufactured cars with carbon dioxide emissions issues. Das problems indeed.

And the getting-it-fixed part actually exacerbates the problems the brand faces. If you own one of the affected VW models, you can return it to an authorized dealer, and they will fix the problems free of charge. However, when those problems are fixed, your car will not perform as it had before. That’s because there’s a trade-off between emissions and fuel efficiency. (Trust me on that one.) So the car you bought, well, is not the car you bought.

As a result of this debacle, VW is facing up to $18 billion in fines and penalties under the US Clean Air Act. They may also face criminal charges. The CEO Martin Winterkorn has resigned, and new CEO Matthias Mueller (previously CEO of Porsche,) has made it his mission to regain consumer trust in the brand.

And that’s really where the damage is done. Sure, the share price has taken a hit (it was trading in the mid $160’s, and then plummeted to around $100 when news of the scandal broke. It’s at $96.17 at the time of this writing.) But the value of the BRAND has all but disappeared.

Brands, and especially automotive brands, are positioned and marketed around very small, scarcely perceptible differences. That’s because they all pretty much do the same thing. If you look at the automotive category, you’ll see that all the brands share about 99% of the exact same DNA. Tires, engines, doors, windows, airbags, radios, seats, etc. So, the only way to be remembered is to make claims around features (or feature sets) that create some tangible benefits to consumers. Benefits like safety, or fuel-efficiency, or exhilaration, or performance.  VW was promising a benefit set of clean air AND fuel efficiency on many of the models in question.

The best way to understand a brand is to think of it as a PROMISE. That’s it. I’ve been beating this into the heads of my graduate students at NYU for years. Brand=promise. So when a brand like Volkswagen openly violates laws and is caught in surreptitious software shenanigans to charge premiums to deliver benefits and it all ends up to be a money-grabbing meister-manipulation, it’s done irreparable damage to the brand that has built equity in its “little outsider that could” position for more than five decades.  Because it breaks the promise.

I’ve often said that brands are like a house of cards. It takes time, patience, skill and a delicate hand to build into something impressive. And just one clumsy bump to have it all come tumbling down in an instant.

Brands are built largely on the advertising they execute. And Volkswagen sits in the pantheon of the “greats” in advertising history. Doyle Dane Bernbach helped put this brand on the map, and paved an entirely new road with their ground-breaking Koenig-penned, Krone-designed, Bernbach-driven “Think Small” back in 1959. They literally shape-shifted the industry with this ad. Partly because it was revolutionary (we’ll tackle that one in another post,) and largely because the brand actually delivered on the promise!

Here’s a modern riff, based on VW’s current position:

VW_thinksmart_ad

So what’s next for VW? How do they go about re-initiating the conversation with American consumers about its brand? How do they recapture the glory and modesty and wry humor of “Think Small” and “Lemon” and that gorgeous “Darth Vader” Super Bowl spot?

Whatever they do, it will have to be an organization-wide mission that every person from the CEO down to the guy who washes the cars at the dealership in Duluth all share.

If I was a brand consultant for Volkswagen, (full disclosure: I’m not, but certainly available!) I would start by going back to what helped build their perception: The dorky little outsider that promised the moon and modestly delivered it. My very next ad headline (think full page insertions in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today,) would probably read “11 million Lemons.” And the body copy would go on to overtly apologize for the transgression, and then outline the steps we were taking to make good on our (new) promises and deliver exceptional automotive engineering.

And then I’d invite consumers to come along for the (literal and figurative) ride to redemption. Das Step 1.

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