At first, like hundreds of thousands of others, I was angry. A major car company had intentionally designed diesel engines that would emit up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than allowed by law. As everyone knows by now, VW had rigged their cars so they would operate differently while being tested. But out on the road they would spew a toxic level of ozone-creating funk.
This news was announced in September of 2015. Today, six months later, VW announced that it was setting aside $18 billion for the diesel scandal, and the company also reported a record loss of $6.2 billion. Also in the news is the first disclosure of a ‘buy back’ program for roughly half a million affected cars in the U.S., for those who want to do that.
There are still a plethora of details to be worked out, of course. But what’s been missing from the conversation is the damage not just to the environment, but to the brand itself. VW has essentially stuck its corporate head in the sand since last September. (I should mention as a caveat here that I was a major fan of Volkswagen prior to this, and had owned several VW’s over the years including a TDI deisel Jetta.) As a marketing guy, this just made no sense to me.
Where was the public admission of guilt? The contrition? The acknowledgement of dire deeds and the promise to do much better? The commitment to helping to reverse the environmental damage? The PR and advertising campaigns to at least begin to restore some minor degree of faith in the brand? All of these are M.I.A.
And now, as the valuation of the company continues to plummet, I’m starting to wonder if VW will ever truly recover? Audi and Porschse – both owned by VW – have come away relatively unscathed. But what of Volkswagen itself? This was a brand with fifty years of remarkable good will. The beloved VW beetle. The VW camper bus. And some of the best automobile advertising ever from DDB in the 1960’s.
The lesson here is that you can easily kill five decades of reputation building with just one very greedy decision. And that was the choice to build cars that cheated on emissions tests. After all, if nobody finds out, who’s the wiser?