I used to drive a ’63 Beetle. I’d willingly fold myself into it and even though it was very small and very slow I’d still smile all the way to work and back each day. Other Volkswagen drivers would even wave to me and I’d wave back. It was like I was living in a Noddyland of happiness.
So when news of the VW scandal broke I felt like I’d been slapped out of that happy place. And I’m sure a few million past, present and future VW owners felt the same.
How could the people who gave us the cuddly Kombi turn into such ruthless, heartless car salesmen? It’s almost impossible to comprehend. With a little bit of emission fibbing tech, the world’s most loved and trusted car brand managed to flush decades of goodwill down the loo.
So now the big question is, can the VW brand make a comeback? Coke shot themselves in the foot with New Coke. Ford completely misread the market with the Edsel. But they were just blunders. Big, expensive blunders sure, but nobody’s going to hate you for making a dumb mistake. If you can ride out massive losses in market share, you can survive and rebuild.
VW is going to find it a lot harder to regain its place in our heart. They are the Lance Armstrong of the auto world. Lance begged forgiveness from fans who suddenly felt silly squeezing into their Livestrong lycra. And even though some forgave him, none have forgotten that he was a cheat.
One thing’s for sure. Advertising can’t solve this problem all by itself. There probably will be an apology ad at some point. Hopefully it won’t be as awkward and ineffectual as Nike’s Tiger and Earl ad. And hopefully it will be backed up by action.
The glimmer of hope for VW is that sporting brands like Nike are working out how to weather their own storm of controversy and win back customers by changing their philosophy on overseas manufacturing. They’re still getting shoes made in places like India and Bangladesh, but the factories are becoming safer and the wages are improving. Decisions that were once almost entirely based on the bottom line are now being filtered through a range of ethical considerations. That’s not just happening because the bean counters had an attack of conscience. It’s happening because it’s a matter of survival. The longer your brand stinks, the faster your brand dies.
I’m expecting VW to find a way back. And I’m hoping for a spectacular response from Germany. This national embarrassment might just trigger a new wave of German innovation that redefines motoring for the future.
Peter Goodall is a Creative Director at BCM