How can Volkswagen rebuild trust in its brand?

In any corporate crisis, honest and timely communication is key, as long as it is accompanied by meaningful and impactful actions.

By Gay Flashman

In the week in which Volkswagen announced that almost half a million of its cars in  the UK alone will need to be recalled for adjustments, we asked a senior panel of  communications experts for their thoughts on how VW could repair its reputation. 

What can VW do in the short and medium term to re-build trust in the brand across the world?  

 

The Volkswagen scandal has sullied the reputation of a great brand that was once synonymous with quality and trusted around the world. Senior executives in the UK organization have been contrite, with UK MD Paul Willis this week apologising “sincerely and unreservedly” for letting down customers.

“Volkswagen has significantly let down its customers and the wider public…,” he said. “We recognise we’ve fallen short of the standards expected and we will take all the necessary steps to regain trust.”

 

A question of values  

“To me, it all relates back to the core company values,” says Caroline Taylor-Martin, a senior communications consultant and IABC UK board member.

“It seems that VW has displayed a lack of integrity when their actions have veered away from their values in such a fundamental way. VW needs to acknowledge this, restate its values and address these issues internally through education and training. Externally, the company must accept responsibility and communicate the actions being taken to redress the balance clearly and concisely.”

Toomas Kull, IABC UK board member and reputation management consultant believes that: “In any corporate crisis, honest and timely communication is key, as long as it is accompanied by meaningful and impactful actions.

“Until VW has conducted a full recall, fixed the technical issue, and completed its internal investigation, the company’s reputation and license to operate will remain under threat. Even so, with so many other voices and experts keen to be heard, it is absolutely key that VW’s messages are not drowned out. Any new revelations, developments and updates should be publicly communicated by the company using its existing channels.”

 

Accept and apologise

“It may well be too early to start considering rebuilding trust at this stage,” concludes IABC UK board member and communications consultant, Daniel Schraibman. “VW needs to show what they are doing to put things right. In the short term that means getting external verification confirming the true emissions rates for all new VW cars and providing a recall/compensation for all VW owners affected.”

Communications advisor and IABC board member Marcie Shaoul adds:

“What they did by acknowledging the problem was positive, but they need to work with those who are affected and with regulatory bodies to come up with solutions. Collaborative working, and acknowledging that they may not always get it right, is essential for rebuilding trust.

 

Years of investigations 

“In the medium term,” adds Daniel Schraibman, “they need to have carried out their own investigation, co-operated fully with any external or criminal investigations and taken any disciplinary action against the people behind this.

“To give you an idea of timescale when something goes wrong like this, I was part of the team at Chevron that responded to the Buncefield oil depot explosion – the biggest explosion in peacetime Europe – in which we were a minority shareholder. The incident took place in December 2005, the independent investigation finished in December 2008 and it wasn’t until March 2009 that the courts decided who was responsible for the incident.

“In the longer-term, VW will need to show what it has done to change the culture of the organisation; retraining, better controls, strengthened whistleblower procedures and so on, to demonstrate that they have done all they can to prevent this from happening again. It’s only once VW get to this stage that they can start the process of rebuilding trust.”

 

Building Trust: a long-term endeavour 

“This may well be a provocative suggestion,” says communications expert and non-executive board member for IABC UK ​Stephen Welch, “but does VW have to worry about rebuilding trust? Have we as a society become so immune to corporate scandal that trust doesn’t really matter anymore? Tesco was recently caught selling underweight products, but we still shop there. We still buy fuel from BP.”

Stephen’s view is that the cost of trying to actively rebuild trust in VW may outweigh the benefits of doing so. “With the general negative sentiment towards diesel cards, especially in the US, and the increasing sophistication of electric cars, I wonder if VW can ever recover its lost reputation in this area?

“It might be better to let reputation grow back naturally by focusing on great products, clean technology, and alternative models, rather than trying to “force” improvements through communication.”

Toomas Kull says:

“Building trust is a long-term endeavour, which stems from stakeholders’ experience with, and perception of, the brand. Re-building trust has to start with direct and frank engagement with an organisation’s closest stakeholders, in this case VW’s customers, dealers, regulators and shareholders.

“There are still many unanswered questions, and time will tell whether emissions cheating devices were used by other car companies. If that turns out to be the case, there is a danger that VW might become the poster-child for an industry issue, unless it succeeds in shoring up support now.”

 

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is a global  membership association with a network of 12,000 members in more than 80  countries. We deliver on the ​Global Standard ​in communication through educational  offerings, certification, awards programs and our annual ​World Conference.​ Follow  us on Twitter ​@iabcuk

Gay Flashman is a former journalist and experienced communications consultant.  Gay is CEO of ​Formative Content​, a UK-based agency providing high quality blog  content, live event coverage ​and social media content ​for clients around the world.

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2 thoughts on “How can Volkswagen rebuild trust in its brand?

  • October 17, 2015 at 5:13 pm
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    How can VW attempt to win back trust.? Create a serio-comic “Throw the Bums Out” ad campaign.

    I agree with my (above) esteemed colleagues. You offer excellent textbook-worthy counsel for slowly rebuilding trust by fixing issues and communicating it in extended campaign over time. Yet because this is a Herculean task that may not be possible–especially given the rise of hybrids and electric cars, I propose a very bold campaign. VW made captured world attention with its early humor ads. Bring back that ad team or their ilk. Craft a serio-comic TV and social media video campaign in 3 stages:

    1st: Shows the co. “throwing the bums out.” Show real EXECS in $2000. suits getting pink slips, and being roughly escorted out the door by a mall cop ( They way the rest of us would experience it if we screwed up this bad).

    2nd: Shows cinema verite of real engineers sweating out the tech problems until they figure it out. Followed by heartfelt Mea Culpa apologies from the real techs responsible., Then show footage of “throwing THOSE [engineer] bums out” for endangering the public OR being too cowardly to speak up.

    3rd: Use historical ads to remind public why they first loved VW. End with new president of VW, joined by new exec leadership team and new engineers asking for a 2nd chance.

    Colleagues, your thoughts?

    Marianne Fleischer,
    Fleischer Communications, San Francisco

    Reply
  • July 25, 2016 at 7:10 pm
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    Reply

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