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Opinion and Insight

Trust, Transparency and Authenticity: the Marketing Buzzwords VW Should Have Paid Attention to

LBB Editorial , 2 years ago

Laura Swinton on why VW should never have taken their brands for granted

Trust, Transparency and Authenticity: the Marketing Buzzwords VW Should Have Paid Attention to

Oh dear, what a car crash. The VW emissions scandal rumbles on this week and, while I’m personally disgusted by the company’s actions (and pretty arrogant assumption that petty things like laws do not apply to them), it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for the ad agencies, production companies and other creative businesses that have worked on the afflicted VW, Skoda, Audi and Seat accounts. Just think of the man hours that have gone into building trusted, admired brands, that have gone into making decade’s worth of award-winning, sales-boosting creative. VW and subsidiaries like Skoda have survived some pretty radical brand overhauls in the past, but is this a scandal too far? 

VW has undergone extensive ‘image rehab’ in the past, of course. The company was founded by Nazi trade unions and was designed under the directives of Adolf Hitler who commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to create a ‘peoples’ car’ (in other words… a Volkswagen…). Expanding into the US with such a history might have put off less driven (sorry, couldn’t resist) brands but, of course, they shrewdly chose DDB as their advertising agency. In 1959, the shop had a largely Jewish staff and its key clients at the time were also Jewish-owned and that decision – alongside revolutionarily irreverent creative – helped the car manufacturer shrug off its past associations with an almost wry shrug. But that was then, when the brand was small and relatively unknown in the States and had nothing to lose. In 2015, it’s the largest car manufacturer in the world and has a devoted fan base of enthusiasts. The broken laws and shattered trust and tumbling share prices mean that it will take more than a bit of playful, left field marketing to fix the problem.

It’s a similar story with Skoda, one of the many brands under the VW umbrella that is now embroiled in the scandal. As a child in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Skoda jokes were all the rage in the playground, even if we didn’t entirely understand the adult winks and nods about the poor quality Soviet motors – but after the Czech brand was bought by VW in 1991 it received investment from its new parent company, upgraded existing models and designed new, much improved models. By 2013 the Skoda Yeti was topping auto industry surveys http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/car-manufacturers/skoda/10018605/Skoda-from-laughing-stock-to-top-dog.html. Again, irreverence was the strategic cornerstone that changed public perceptions of the brand – the Felicia was launched with a campaign from Grey that confronted Skoda’s shonky image, “'We've changed the car. Can you change your mind?” From an advertising perspective, the icing on the Skoda cake came when the patisserie-themed spot from Fallon and Gorgeous director Chris Palmer became the third most awarded ad of 2008. It’s been a long, 24 year journey of rehabilitation for the brand… can it spare another 24 years?

Advertising, no matter how clever, isn’t going to solve the crisis alone - if it is, indeed, solvable (and please, for the love of GOD, no ‘we’re so green and totally ethical’ blandvertising a la Apple’s ‘Better’ campaign, which totally failed to make me decide to forget Foxconn). But that doesn’t mean that the advertising and marketing communities don’t have plenty of advice and insight that could help other brands avoid the problem. ‘Transparency’ and ‘authenticity’ have been watchwords for the past six or seven years – as digital channels in particular have proliferated, people have grown to expect an intimate, personal relationship with brands. Or, at the very least, some sort of accountability. Whether it's horse meat in supermarket ready meals, budget clothing brands using sweatshops, chain restaurants skimping out on tips or ill-advised corporate sponsorship deals, people take to social media and streets to vent their displeasure. Why else would McDonald's self-flagellate with the award-winning 'Our Food. Your Questions' initiative? Marketing and communications can’t be pithy straplines and wacky bits of creative slapped on at the end of the process – they need to be embedded deep within to help a company open up. If a marketing person or ad agency strategist had stumbled upon the VW conspirators, you can be sure they’d have told them, ‘hey, just a heads up, you’re going to look like utter shit stains if this gets out, so maybe… don’t?’

Trust is another marketing buzzword that has passed over the VW higher-ups – probably too busy cooking up nefarious schemes in their Saxony lairs. It’s a particularly dumb oversight for a car brand; for the average consumer, the family car is a carefully considered purchase, and for auto enthusiasts, brand loyalty is a deeply rooted thing. Trust is more important to car manufacturers than it is to the banking sector. The global financial crisis, the Lehmann Brothers, price fixing… big banking brands have destroyed peoples’ lives but no one really liked banks or bankers anyway. Even in the good old days when they were stalwart, upright institutions, a visit to the bank manager was as welcome as a trip to the dentist. Cars on the other hand? People (generally) love cars. How else can you explain the popularity of Top Gear (or Jeremy Clarkson’s £10 million deal with Amazon)? VW had carloads of trust… and they’ve squandered it big time.

I don't have a big enough calculator (or enough patience) to figure out how many hundreds of millions... no... how many billions of dollars VW has spent on advertising, brand building over the past fifty-odd years. All that creative energy and smart thinking down the drain. 
If they were my client I'd be livid.

Category: Automotive , Cars