Volkswagen thumbs nose at crisis management convention with new ads
The playbook for surviving a brand crisis usually goes like this: Apologize, wait out the storm, change the conversation. But with a new campaign, Volkswagen has upended conventional wisdom by digging up its diesel emissions scandal that erupted four years ago. It’s a risky move considering that the average car buyer has put the scandal in the rear-view mirror, evidenced by VW’s recent positive sales trends.
The effort–which began earlier this week with an expensive TV spot that spins the crisis as the impetus for the automaker’s aggressive move into electric vehicles—has proven polarizing. Critics are questioning why the German brand would risk reigniting debate about a disaster that tarnished its long-held pro-environment positioning. But others are praising Volkswagen for taking a bold gamble in an era where brands typically play
Seeing the light
The spot, by VW’s new U.S. agency Johannes Leonardo, is backed by Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.” It includes references to negative news reports about the scandal, in which VW admitted to installing “defeat device” software in vehicles so they would run at legal emissions levels during testing, but otherwise spew harmful toxins up to 40 times above the limit. VW has paid out more than $31 billion in fines and settlements since confirming the deception. The spot concludes by showing the development of an electric version of VW’s classic Microbus, ending with the line, “In the darkness, we found the light. Introducing a new era of electric driving.”
“Our biggest mistake has led to the biggest transformation in the company’s history,” Jim Zabel, VW of America senior VP of marketing, told Ad Age, alluding to VW’s plans to flood the global market with 70 new electric models in the next 10 years. Leo Premutico, co-chief creative officer at Johannes Leonardo, says the ad is “very much about clearing the air with our customer. Because it’s really hard, difficult, to become a part of culture again if we are not reconnecting with our audience.”
But one person who used to work for the brand questioned the move. “People have nearly forgotten about the scandal. They need to just move on like consumers have,” says this person, who requested anonymity. Indeed, VW’s sales rose 6 percent
in the first five months of this year, outpacing industrywide sales, which fell 2 percent, according to Automotive News.
The cloud of controversy
The stink of the scandal lingers. VW still faces a civil lawsuit from the
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that alleges it failed to alert investors of the emissions issue in a timely manner.
One agency executive not involved with the brand observed that the new ad is “a beautiful film that will no doubt rally a battered internal VW culture and give a needed spark to U.S. dealers. But it is restaging the narrative by revising history to be apologetic years after the fact. Big global corporations do not usually have the bravery to showcase a dark moment, but the attempt is marred by a bit of mirror, mirror, on the wall romanticism.”
But VW also drew praise for taking a risk. “Marketing needs more people willing to step out of the safety of the what the crowd thinks and create a message that has teeth,” says Jason DeLand, a partner at Anomaly, which is not involved with the campaign. “To me it says they accept they f----d up and used that pain as fuel to create something great.”
Clearing the air
Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow says the ad hits on a “secret psychology”–that consumers “tend to like companies that make mistakes but then pay a price, apologize and go forward with humility more than we liked them before they erred.” She adds: “I applaud them for bringing up their past. It was such a shocking and massive mistake, it’s not like they’re going to escape it.”
Zabel and Premutico suggested the brand had to confront the crisis head-on before pivoting to a second phase of the campaign called “Drive Something Bigger Than Yourself,” which will carry references to higher ideals like rising above self-interest. That amounts to a major pivot for a brand that had mostly stuck to more simplistic, product-focused ads in the wake of the scandal.
Says Zabel: “Without mentioning the past ... we would never have the credibility or authenticity to move forward with the brand.” He adds: “Through the last three-and-a-half years or so we kind of operated as usual in the consumers’ eye. We kept a very consistent message in the marketplace, but didn’t really have a powerful point of view as a brand.”
The new point of view includes a nod to VW’s countercultural past, with refreshed versions of classic VW print ads from the 1960s by Doyle Dane Bernbach that took an antiestablishment approach and deployed classic copy lines like “Lemon” and “Think Small.” One of the reimagined versions is called Lemonade, with a line stating, “even the sourest situation can be turned into something sweet.” DDB declined to comment.