VW lemon brand perception

Killing the Lemon: How VW Ruined 50 years of Customer Trust with a Few Bad Deeds.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

When thinking of a brand’s cumulative effect—the intentionally expressed intellectual and emotional stories a company consistently tells its audiences—how your brand and your product make someone feel is one of the most significant parts of the value they equate to your product and brand.

For instance, take the latest Volkswagen and Audi emission scandal issues. According to most reports, a small fraction of VW engineers deliberately created dishonest workarounds for the EPA fuel efficiency measures. This internal group hid this dishonest workaround and the information supporting it from executives within the company and, in turn, the EPA and customers—a deliberate deception.

Even though very few knew about this intentional integrity lapse, there will be drastic effects on the company’s bottom line in order to make reparations for these issues. However, more drastic will be the deep and long-lasting effects that the brand perception will suffer. It even rewrites the history for Volkswagen.

Once Happy Campers
Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, VW was a quirky foreign car with a skeptical reputation in the US for its unusual size (very small by American standards) and was, to some, considered unreliable. Back then, any car that wasn’t made in the USA suffered a similar reputation and an uphill market battle. This made it very difficult for foreign automakers to enter the US market. Jaguar, VW, BMW, and Saab, among others, all were trying to enter the auto-hungry US market that was completely dominated by Detroit brands like Ford, Chevy, Chrysler, Buick, etc.

In the 1950s, the New York City ad agency BBD won the small Volkswagen account. After its highly successful “Think Small” campaign reached and created a big impact on the skeptical US consumer, BBD followed up with an even more famous campaign that was at once both counter-intuitive and approached the skepticism head-on. The single headline read “Lemon” with a black and white photo of the VW Beetle. This was a breakthrough ad that set a counter-culture tone and attitude that encompassed the vehicle and created a new relationship with a new customer. One can scarcely think of the 1960s without imagining a VW Beetle or Bus.

VW ruined customer trust and brand perception

Now, thanks to Volkswagen’s current integrity issue, even that iconic ad and all the positive effects, trust, and confidence it created over the past 50 years are reassembled in a new brand truth. Today, Volkswagen, for the first time since declaring itself a “lemon,” is now seen as a “lemon.”

Actions are louder than words; feelings are louder than actions.

Through its fuel efficiency dishonesty, Volkswagen created a feeling of massive mistrust in the eyes of all its customers and prospects. The feelings associated with these actions have essentially stripped VW and Audi drivers of a significant level of value that drove the purchase of these vehicles. These customers feel cheated. Audi and VW owners who have been directly affected by this scandal are dismayed. The vehicle that they thought they bought is not the vehicle they bought at all. How VW and Audi made drivers feel will have repercussions for years to come. How they make the affected customers feel in handling and responding to this issue, which is still playing out, may have equal effects to dishonest deeds.

Given the chance to sit down with Volkswagen’s leaders (which I’d love to do), I would certainly ask and help them answer the question, “What now, is your reason for being?” I strongly believe that having a clear and actionable answer to this will help them come up with an integrity-centric and meaningful “make it right” response to its customers.

Relevant posts include:

If you’d like to know more about my work in evolving and integrating brands and cultures, go here.

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