A lesson from beyond for Volkswagen: always come clean.

    Bernbach knew that the strongest asset of any brand is the truth behind it. The sole differentiator, which sets it apart from all those ‘me-too’ offerings.

    VW’s truth was its reliability. Later, it became ‘unbelievable value’. And more recently, it evolved into the equally compelling ‘Clean Diesel’.

    Except this time, the truth wasn’t true. TDI Clean Diesel was a lie. A cynical, calculated deception.

    You can see why they lied. And why they did it in the USA. Their product couldn’t function within stringent American regulations and still be a fun ride, so they elaborately faked the 'clean' bit – on 11 million vehicles.

    Once the lie was born, it was over to their ad agency to, albeit inadvertently, disseminate it.

    Those outside the ad industry find it hard to believe, but adfolk adore the truth. It’s far easier to write an ad that’s unequivocally true, rather than one riddled with weasels. Although this may not attract your sympathy, I am sure the ad people who worked on the Clean Diesel proposition believed it was true. They are as outraged as the customers they unintentionally deceived, because this scam has irreversibly damaged a brand considered sacred (well, in advertising circles, anyway).

    When a brand crosses the line and wilfully lies, things backfire on a massive scale. Instead of Bernbach’s truth, it’s the lie which becomes the most powerful element in everything they say and do. If you’d run a poll before this scandal broke, asking ‘what does Volkswagen stand for?’, you’d have received answers such as ‘cleanliness’, and ‘environmental awareness’. Today, the answers would be ‘lies’, ‘deception’, and so on.

    There is nothing advertising can do for VW right now, or for the foreseeable future. Advertising has a nasty habit of exacerbating a bad situation. Think of all those cringeworthy ads about trust that the banks put out after they were rumbled in 2008.

    It’s too late this time around, but Volkswagen should have been honest. With themselves. With the regulators. With their customers. With their dealers. They should have come clean and said, ‘our diesels can’t meet the US regulations and still be exciting to drive, so we’re going to stop making them’.

    Yes, it would have cost them many billions of dollars to rationalise their range to petrol-only. Diesels will inevitably phased out anyway, and VW could have led the crusade by recognising by being the first to cease their production. Instead, the costs they will soon face will be of the legal variety. The deadline for the combined suit against VW passed on October 26th and the law firms involved will be looking to grease their palms big-time.

    A high price to pay, not just for going against their former mentor’s wise words, but for brazenly speeding off in the opposite direction.

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