Do customers care if brands are honest? Let's ask Volkswagen

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

There are lots of quick shortcuts to instant customer engagement – emails, newsletters, free downloads. But engaging people for the long term is an entirely different thing.

For brand-customer relationships to blossom, they have to be nurtured. What starts as a temporary connection can last a lifetime if promises are consistently kept.

So what happens when things go wrong? Here's a cautionary tale courtesy of Volkswagen.

How to build a loyal following

In the late 1950s and 60s, Volkswagen built an incredible brand with unforgettable values. Designed by DDB's legendary ad team, VW's image said: 'Yes, we're different – but we're better.'

VW forged its customer relationships with trust, and brutal honesty. With the Beetle, they said it's small and ugly – but it makes your house look bigger and it 'gets you there'.

'Bug chasers' popped up all over the place – people whose eyes saw nothing but beauty in VW's ugly, practical cars. The Station Wagon became a cult icon for America's hippies and surfers.

Remember – the war was still fresh in the collective memory and this is a company historically bound to Adolf Hitler.

A company which, in later years, admitted to using thousands of Jewish slave labourers during the war.

Seen through this lens, VW's DDB-inspired brand loyalty is a marvel. And it lasted too.

Words such as 'reliable', 'well-made' and 'built to last' were cliché descriptions for the Volkswagen product.

That was before September 2015.

How to destroy customer trust overnight

Volkswagen lied, and they cheated. The boss was forced to resign. The resale value of their cars dropped, and their share price plummeted.

More than 11 million cars have been recalled, and $7bn has been set aside to cover the expected costs.

VW has apologised for the emissions scandal, with a letter to owners signed by the new CEO:

I am writing to you today to offer a personal and profound apology. Volkswagen has violated your trust. I understand and fully appreciate your anger and frustration… We are committed at every level of our company to do what must be done to begin to regain your trust.

Those affected will get $1,000 worth of gift cards, and free roadside assistance for 3 years.

Gifts and an apology letter. Sounds just like the behaviour of a guilty lover, doesn't it?

The lesson: Don't lie to people

Only time will tell how bad the Volkswagen brand damage is.

But beware – if you build relationships on a strong and convincing company ethos, you'd better stick to it.

Trust is built by consistently proving your values over time – but it takes just moments to destroy. Try asking people today what Volkswagen stands for.

Consumers choose brands whose values and motivations match their own.

Guarantee those things over the long term and you'll get the kind of brand engagement you deserve.

If you don't, you'll get another kind – and you'll deserve that too.

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