I'm somewhat of a Volkswagen loyalist. During my adult life, I have purchased two VWs and one Audi (which is owned by VW). For me, they offer affordable German engineering with a fun, youthful, driver-focused brand persona. Yep, I'm all about Fahrvergnugen.
My husband is on the VW bandwagon, too. In fact, when his aging VW Rabbit couldn't pass California's smog test years ago, he sold it for scrap and made enough for a down payment for my engagement ring, now affectionately called my "VW" ring.
So, you can imagine my surprise and disappointment when the VW diesel-engine emissions scandal broke. Though I don't own a diesel, I felt duped by a brand that I had come to respect and trust. Now, I can't help but wonder what secrets are hiding under the hood of my VW?
As a VW owner and a PR professional, I've thought a lot about how VW can recover from the diesel emissions deception and win back the respect of customers.
Do I think VW will recover? Yes, but it won't be an easy or quick fix. And is VW the only brand to ever lose consumers' trust in a national crisis? Of course not.
Beyond the hefty fines, regulatory scrutiny and countless lawsuits that will be filed, here are a few key steps VW must take to build trust and win back its reputation and brand advocates:
- Clean out the C Suite
This has already begun to happen with the resignation of CEO Martin Winterkorn. His replacement, Matthias Mueller, comes from the company's Porsche brand. For some, the choice of another company man may not signal enough of a change. An outsider ready to overturn the VW culture apple cart might be a better choice. Mueller could be just the first in a line of CEOs needed to get VW back on the road to recovery. Beyond the executive ranks, senior managers and high-ranking engineers have already been fired.
- Transparent, Honest and Ongoing Communications
Owning up to its deception was an important first step for VW, but it needs to keep the open-communications ball rolling. VW's website for America has several web pages devoted to information about the emissions crisis, including a video message to customers from Michael Horn, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America. Horn relays VW's commitment "to making this right and preventing it from ever happening again." Now, it's time for VW to tell its customers, dealers and other stakeholders exactly how they will prevent this in the future and keep telling it through every communication platform possible. Full-page apology ads are a good start. Does anyone feel a "60 Minutes" segment in the making?
- Make An Outstanding Product
While the diesel emissions scandal is deplorable, the truth is that VW makes good cars with very good to excellent safety ratings. MotorTrend and Edmunds named the VW Golf its 2015 Car of the Year and the Golf, Jetta and Passat were named Top Safety Picks by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Now is the time to reassure consumers that VW, while not perfect, remains the brand that they believed in and which offered the driving experience they wanted. VW needs to take their engineering to the next level and introduce innovative safety measures and technical features that consumers can't resist and that the industry loves. Consumers will often accept your failings, if the end result is a better company and product.
What are your thoughts about the VW emission scandal? Do you think the company will recover? What does VW need to do to win back customer loyalty?