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Volkswagen's challenge
Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Volkswagen's challenge

The difficulties of running a global car manufacturing empire are legion, there is no doubt. 

The logistics of new product development, employment, quality control and breaking new markets in different countries are inconceivable to the layperson. And for any car manufacturer, these things are dealt with by vast armies of highly skilled personnel.

For Volkswagen, these challenges are even greater by wont of the fact that they are the second largest in the game after Toyota.

Yet here we are, looking at one of the largest controversies and public relations problems faced by any manufacturer this century as the media machine uncovers the details behind Volkswagen's manipulation of emissions test results.

So why is this such a big deal? Nobody has died, the Wolfsburg plant hasn't collapsed in a terrorist incident, the company hasn't been discovered funding any questionable political factions. It's difficult to conceive of why this has made such extraordinary waves across the globe.

The PR fact of the matter is this: Volkswagen has been the master of proactive public relations. It is a name which is now synonymous with quality and is therefore more trusted than any other brand in the car world. 

It beats the pants off the prestige brigade. Range Rover, Rolls Royce, Bentley etc – all have the common man thinking that someone, somewhere, is making huge money out of those premium-priced vehicles and that fact alone is enough to raise a cynical eyebrow.

Volkswagen is the peoples' car. It is more aspirational for most people than any other brand and regardless of your background or earnings level, you will be seen as tasteful and classy if you own one.

Ironically – it rose from the dark depths of Nazi rule as the car that Hitler himself conjured up for the masses, hardly an auspicious start…

Yet with the intervention of the British Government at the end of WW2, the Volkswagen factory was saved, seen as a necessary means for Germany to rebuild and to help itself rise from the physical and economic decimation wrought by war.

In doing so, the brand became a metaphor for good triumphing over evil. And in the intervening years, has gone on to be the most innovative, practical and globally conquering brand of our time with clones spewing forth from every other car factory – including the big boys like BMW and Mercedes.

Myriad adverts with uber-cool taglines and consistently award-winning advertising campaigns have created immense collateral for the brand. Creative, fast-thinking, entertaining and often topical PR has facilitated this. All of these associations have become a currency, enabling Volkswagen to trade on its desirability, backed by German quality.

VW has been championed by the world like no other brand. Who can forget The Beastie Boys' touting the VW badge as their bling of choice, prompting global thefts of the emblem from cars on every street. They chose VW over any other brand – and that kind of recognition is priceless. 

The classic VW camper van is still the vehicle that everyone associates with the word 'camper', more than 65 years after it was launched. An incredible legacy matched only by that of the Golf, the first true hatchback and also the first 'hot hatch' in its Gti incarnation.

And now Volkswagen has lied...

The car brand which all others look up to is facing a mountain to climb in reassuring those millions of owners, customers and potential customers that it is still the brand of choice. And of course it will cost the company an extraordinary sum over many years of legal battles in numerous countries. The fall-out from this actually has the potential to end the production of diesel cars entirely.

What happens next will dictate how Volkswagen recovers. 

And it will not be anything to do with emmissions, managerial resignations or any other mechanisms that we all expect to happen, because they will happen anyway as a matter of course - and does anyone really care if a top-level boss steps down?

Although nobody is doubting the potential damage that this vastly expensive mistake will wreak on Volkswagen, what will be interesting to see is how the company manages its PR in the wake of this scandal, while the eyes of the world are watching its every move and analysing its every soundbite.

Crisis PR management is something which can define or sink a business and many big organisations have got it badly wrong over the years. 

Could this be the company's greatest challenge? It's unlikely that it will compare to VW's miraculous rise from the carnage of WW2 and its very difficult severance from an undeniable Nazi heritage, but it is already a massive problem. 

The question posed is this; if Volkswagen gets the PR right on this massive calamity, can it maintain credibility and preserve its marque of quality?