Volkswagen: Once a Cheater Always a Cheater

October 1, 2015


Jan Gusich

When will people learn? It doesn’t pay to cheat. Just ask Lance Armstrong, Pete Rose and Barry Bonds. Now, apparently, you can also ask Volkswagen.

It pains me to know that one of the most iconic, respected and trusted brands in the world is a cheater. Yep, those peppy Passats and audacious Audis we love to drive and brag about their fuel efficiency, emit 10 to 40 times the legal limit of nitrogen. What?  You weren’t aware? That’s because a piece of software designed to skew emissions was installed on up to 11 million cars sold around the world, with a half a million here in the Unites States, according the U.S. EPA.

I want to cry for this brand. I drive an Audi. I love my car. I love Volkswagen. I also want to punch them for being so stupid.  They will never fully recover.  Like they say: “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” That’s not a wives tale. It’s a truism and, I’m afraid, a label Volkswagen may never overcome (at least not for a long time).

As a crisis communications expert, I see the company in the aftermath trying to do the right things: Apologizing profusely. Investigating to get to the bottom of the matter. Vowing to never let something like this happen again.

Unfortunately, the apologies and vows are hollow. The executives of this company tarnished a globally beloved brand. And for that: They. Will. No. Be. Forgiven. Customers who purchased Diesel-engine cars bought them for their environmental properties. That’s a betrayal loyal followers won’t take lightly.

In presentations about crisis communication, I talk about Brand Protection. It begins with evaluating an organization’s core values. It is about creating systemic incorruptibility, based on organizational integrity,that drives each and every organizational decision from the top down.  It is about developing clear policies, hyper transparency, and the willingness to do the right thing. And it is absolutely required for the long-term sustainability of your organization.

We live in a new society of vigilante consumerism. If your organization is cheating, we will find out. By making a commitment to always doing the right thing, you are creating a strong foundation that will help you overcome any attempts to spoil your reputation from acts of God to acts of the Internet.

Conducting a brand audit empowers executives to review every policy and practice that touches your reputation and could affect your brand. It empowers them to identify weakness and omissions (lie a Code of Ethics for Leadership) and remedy the gaps. The audit helps to limit organizational vulnerability to criticism and attack. It improves the organization’s ability to secure its reputation by ensuring that its crisis response (what it says publicly) is fully supported privately.

I don’t know if Volkswagen will ever recover.  What I do know is this: In today’s society, integrity and values are the only way to truly protect your brand.

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