Miruna Codeanu

When Volkswagen met the power of the Internet

In espresso on September 29, 2015 at 6:10 am

ca1e952f1a5b0da13f52723d857c423397921c36It is big, appalling, scary and horrid: the Volkswagen scandal. It is scary for both the consumer and the Volkswagen company. I’ve said it numerous times before: in the 21st century, a national state is no longer the policy maker. I’ve been counter argued. I’ve heard that still, in a contemporary democracy, a state has the power to create the conditions for a free market. Sorry guys, no. That is so last century. It’s the world and the companies now. It’s the consumer versus the company. Had this happened 20 or 30 years ago it wouldn’t had been such a big deal, leaving aside the importance of the environmental issues in 2015.

If you somehow live in a void bubble where nothing reaches you, I’ll summarize the Volkswagen scandal. The International Council on Clean Transportation wanted to study emissions from 3 diesel cars: Vw Jetta, Vw Passat and BMWX5.  VW failed the test, Nox emissions were 15-35 higher than the standard. Accusations were not explicit but the report was self-sufficient. Then, it was revealed that Volkswagen had previously installed a software to cheat the tests. Volkswagen American apparently tried to shut the scandal, sending letters to the car owners in California asking to bring them in for a software upgrade. Instead, the whole thing blew and since then, it does not seem to stop. Vw has since admitted the cheat affects 11m cars. Reports on how much pollution VW produced, on how many deaths could have been cause by Vw were published. There are risks in all aspects of the business. This is bigger than any safety scandal any car maker was ever involved in and it is getting bigger.

In 2015 environment is such a delicate issue, but do you know what the biggest challenge of 2015 is? The power of the consumer. Marketers, branding specialists, social media specialists and all the people that will be the first managers run to when confronted with an image crisis, have been trying to tell CEO’s a company can no longer afford to lie. Companies are vulnerable, but they are not vulnerable in front of national states of regulators, their only present liability is the consumer. States are exposed to corruption, and probably we will soon be hearing about some cases in this scandal, but the consumers are the ones directly affected by this. I will give the credit to social media, because in the traditional one-to-many type of communication, a company can shut down a scandal quite fast. However, when you have one piece of news, that is hard news exponentially spreading from consumer to consumer, you are infinitely more exposed. It is like every person spreading the news becomes a news agency, leaving ahead the traditional media. It is a case study for the snowball effect in social media, viral gone bad.

timeline-of-events-in-volkswagen-pollution-cheating-scandalVw met the power of www and is paying the price for disobeying the one person who feared the impact of such a scandal on the Vw brand. Because I do hope that at that meeting, there was one person veto-ing such a move. I do hope that in any company, the CMO is par of the board when such crucial decision are being made. The shortest way for a consumer is not the legal way, but to attack your brand. Vw’s image will be hard to repair. On the short term best strategy will be that Vw will be mourning their mistake. They admitted to it, now they have to apologize and then repair it. Unfortunately, Vw’s strategy to now was not an example of responsiveness, but they need to, because they will also be needing massive sales in order to recover from the costs of this scandal. Instead, Vw has been continuing with their plan, like this scandal never existed and every time I see a commercial or piece of advertising on the happy family in a Vw I burst out laughing. If Vw recovers from this scandal fast enough it will probably be a case study for future marketers on how to handle a crisis. However, until now, Vw seems to ignore it.

Dear Vw CMO,
First, you should apologize. Yes, apologizing means admitting it, but Vw already did, so you should now make sure that it reaches every person affected by your decision, that is the entire planet. You rapidly need to rethink your strategy, you need to forget about the plan you had for this and first try to regain your credibility as a brand, because otherwise all the money spent on media buying will be in vain. Apologize, do it big, put a banner on Mars apologizing to planet Earth,  buy some land on the moon and advertise there. Mourn a bit, stop broadcasting happy families, show consumers you are sorry and you mean it. Plant trees on the billboards, make some calculation on how many trees it would take to plant in order to absorb the damage you’ve done and do it. Replant a forest in loving memory of all those affected by the pollution. Send trees to those who own Vw cars. You are now acting as you are ignoring it, though the world is not. The news is spreading and the scandal is getting bigger, exposed to massive speculation. Also, next time try being a bit more transparent with the buyers and tougher with your CEO when explaining this will have massive impact on the brand.  We live interesting times, and for their sake I want this to be a case study on how a crisis can be dealt with and on how marketing can reshape the world.




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