For years VW has produced some of the best advertising and has been effective at communicating that its brand doesn’t cut corners. In the famous “Lemon” ad, which helped to launch the creative revolution, the copy describes how “no” cars don’t cut it.

As advertising veteran Edward Boches says, the Lemon advertisement introduced “America to what would become one of the most loved and respected brands of all time: a brand that stood for quality, honesty, and a commitment to its customer”.

So it was a shock when news got out last year that VW, who recently had a marketing campaign touting its low emissions, was breaking the law and deceiving its customers. The EPA discovered that many VW cars had a “defeat device”.

VW installed software in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested and could change their performance accordingly in order to fool emissions test.

So did VW throw away brand equity that took decades to build in one swift act? We can determine how Volkswagen handled this PR crisis by using William Benoit’s Image Restoration Discourse theory.

 Benoit has offered different types of image repair strategies when a corporation is faced with a crisis.

  • First one can deny the act occurred or that it was harmful.
  • Second, one can evade responsibility by shifting blame for the act to another, say it was an accident, or that the offensive act was done with good intentions.
  • Third, one can reduce offensiveness of the act by bolstering positive feelings to counterbalance damage, minimizing negative feelings associated with the act, differentiating the act from more offensive acts, placing the act in a more favorable context, attacking your accusers, or compensation.
  • The other repair strategies include taking corrective action to repair the problem, and confessing and begging for forgiveness.
Volkswagen spent a lot more time denying and evading responsibility, than taking corrective action or fessing up.
It was only when the EPA forced their hand by withholding approval for the company’s 2016 diesel models, that Volkswagen finally admitted that it used a defeat device to pass emissions tests.
CEO, Martin Winterkorn tried to shift responsibility and offered a dubious explanation that “only a few rogue engineers” within the company were to blame, and that no one in command knew what was going on.
To be fair, the company attempted to compensate customers by offering up to $1,000 in incentives, but customers were not receptive to these goodwill packages.
Finally, during an interview with NPR, the company was presented with the perfect opportunity to confess and beg their consumers for forgiveness. But instead of apologizing, VW chief executive, Matthias Müller, said that the company “didn’t lie” to American regulators, and blamed the whole thing on a technical problem.

 

Volkswagen didn’t repair their image successfully, and the fallout from their actions is real. The company posted its first quarterly loss in at least 15 years.
Volkswagen was not acting ethically, and it appears that they were operating under a consequentialist philosophy, valuing profits despite how they made it.
Ultimately it wasn’t their modus operandi that put them in this situation, but how audiences feel about it now that their practices are exposed.
For audiences, it was clear that Volkswagen valued profits more than respecting the law, respecting the environment, and being transparent with consumers.