VW-Das Fraud: the disruptive innovation that disrupted a company

VW_LemonIn 1960, Volkswagen wanted to enter in the American market, and decided to launch an innovative advertising campaign by BBDO. This ad, and another from the same period (“Think Small) are considered one of the best ads ever, creating a creative revolution in the ad industry. The campaign positioned the brand as different, almost contra-cultural, self-deprecating, and cool. Fast forward to present times.  After a series of clever ads such the one aired at the 2011 Superbowl, which were loved and shared through social media, VW enters into a phase of reputational crisis that can seriously affect the company as we know. Is a VW an authentic “lemon” now? Can a brand survive such a fraud to consumer’s trust?

This kind of crisis is dramatic, not only due to its gigantic financial proportion, but due to its characteristic: it can be classified as a transgression, using Coombs & Halladay typology (1996), which means it was crisis that was created internally and intentionally. In this case, the customer’s sympathy is not on the company’s side, naturally. And as a consequence, image repair will be tougher.

However, more than a brand’s crisis (and it’s ironic that I’m starting my new blog with a post on crisis management), I see this case as a crisis of a certain type of marketing, which is very focused on the creation of a better mousetrap. This is the typical functional benefit trap that Holts and Cameron (2010) warns us, and actually, it can be successful – but only if it is truly demonstrable, which we know now it didn’t happen in VW´s case.  Contrary to their ads, VW diesel cars were not clean. And now everything the brand stood for turned to smoke.


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