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The Volkswagen scandal and reinvention

Over the past month, there have been multiple brand scandals making headlines, the biggest being the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

Volkswagen scandal

There have been many brand scandals over the years, from Abercrombie & Fitch’s fat-shaming size limits to BP’s environmental disaster, but what do these scandals mean for the brands involved? How do they recover? Will they always be tainted by their past mistakes? Although we can’t predict the future, we do think that there is hope, and it starts by going back to the drawing board.

What Went Wrong?

Volkswagen have been a trusted brand for years. Known for manufacturing reliable vehicles with technical expertise and top engineering, the brand has hit an all time low after September’s revelations. Pre-September 2015, there were many proud owners of VW vehicles worldwide. One fan took to Twitter just days before the brand hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, saying: ‘VW is not just a brand, it's a culture #VW #VDubLove #Cars’. But now, Twitter has turned into a medium where VW owners are expressing their anger about the company using software to defeat emissions tests. 

After spending years branding it’s diesel engines as ‘clean diesel’, buyers have been choosing VW vehicles for their efficiency and environmental credentials. The brand has even won awards based on their ‘eco-friendly’engines. Ironically, their Passat TDI, won car.com’s ‘Eco-friendly Car of the Year 2015’award earlier this year. 

The VW brand image used to be very clear. It was straightforward, honest and in recent years, dependent on being a leader on environmental standards. This traces back to the 1960’s when the brand called for people to ‘Think Small’in an era of gas-guzzling cars. Famously, their global campaign of 2010 was called ‘Think Blue’, with the aim to ‘become the world’s most ecologically sustainable car manufacturer’by 2018. 

Earlier this year, Clive Grinyer, Barclay’s Customer Experience Director said, ‘[…] we now live in a world where customers expect every brand to walk the talk, to experience brand values at every touchpoint and every interaction. And if they don’t feel that, they’ll let you know on social media!’ It looks like Grinyer was one hundred percent correct in this statement, and looking at it now, it could well have been a prediction. 

Obviously, this latest revelation has thrown Volkswagen’s brand image out of the window. They have let their customers down because they have not ‘walked their talk’. Their brand values now mean nothing and there is no trust between the market and the brand. Who are Volkswagen in 2015 and what do they stand for if not a green planet? 

Starting Afresh 

Now we can see what exactly has gone wrong with Volkswagen, we can start to look at what they can do to rebuild their brand. 

Over the past decade in particular, the way brands are developed has changed drastically. In the 1950’s, Brand design phenomenon, Walter Landor, pioneered classic branding techniques designed to convey friendliness, reliability and trustworthiness. Within this, a brand’s logo meant everything. It was the heart of the brand. Everything else, including advertising, websites and documentation was designed around the logo. The number one rule was that the brand had to be simple and unchanging. Deviation was seen as a threat. Now, this is irrelevant. 

Contemporary markets are globally hyper-competitive, and a brand’s customers and competitors are ever-changing. The key to becoming a competitive brand in the 21st century is ensuring you are an adaptable, opportunity-seeking, clear, collaborative, multi-platform and active brand that is aware of global influences. This flexibility enables a brand to keep fresh, evolving with the culture and market they are targeting. 

Although this scandal has been a disaster for the Volkswagen brand, it could be the motivation behind a successful and much needed modern rebrand. Now that the whole world is questioning who Volkswagen are, they can hit the drawing board and create something innovative, valuable and responsible, echoing their three brand values. 

Where to start

In multiple studies, there is a general conclusion that 90 percent of decisions made are emotional. Nowadays, a brand is not a logo, a product, a name or an identity - a brand is a promise to do something. Of course, the logo, product name and identity are important, but they should centre around the brand’s promise, tools to get the brand’s promise across. If Volkswagen’s promise is not to create eco-friendly cars, they need to find what it is. By going back to their roots and finding why they’re special, staying away from their previous eco-friendly image, they have a chance of making a new emotional connection. This may not necessarily be with the people who care about staying green, it may be with a whole new target audience. But by reaching into the brand’s soul, they will be able to connect with people again, even if it means a slight change of direction.