The VW Diesel Scandal: Why it Matters to Marketers

Oct 7, 2015

Business Owners: What’s your Unique Selling Proposition (USP)?

Think before you answer. How you respond to this query will do more than just inform your company’s next marketing campaign, it will define the future of your business…just ask Volkswagen (and the 11 million unwitting consumers who currently own “clean diesel” cars that have emissions cheating programs embedded in their software system.) The fallout from the VW diesel scandal is just beginning.

Back in 2009, VW started paving its own private road to its current PR-hell by making a bold commitment to consumers: clean diesel cars are the wave of the future, and we’re going to teach you how to surf that wave.

Since the concept of “clean diesel” was so new to the American public, the German powerhouse knew they had to invest in some serious educational advertising to get their TDI (turbo diesel injection) line off the ground. They launched the “TDI Truth & Dare” campaign to much acclaim, attacking some common myths of “dirty diesel” with spots like this one:

They even created a separate website to supplement the campaign (incidentally, is “no longer available.”) The website used to contain a series of interesting tools to drive home the main selling points of the TDI line. It had a “Savings Calculator” that showed website visitors the “facts” about how VW’s diesel cars stacked up against their competitors with regard to emissions testing and fuel-efficiency. The site’s “Tank Wars” challenge highlighted the Guinness World Record of 58 miles per gallon that was set in a TDI vehicle, and dared consumers to try to break that mark.

Over the next six years, VW played off of this theme in much of the advertising for their TDI line. They even netted YouTube stars the “Three Golden Sisters” to dispel diesel myths in a series of amusing ad spots.

The commercials are funny, informative, and they performed remarkably well among a consumer base that’s increasingly become numb to traditional forms of advertising.

But last month’s VW diesel scandal is proof that no matter how good your marketing is, if you can’t back up your USP with your product/service offerings, you’re better off not having hired anyone at all.

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Their tagline “Das Auto” has been transformed into “Das Cheaters” by betrayed customers. Audi (owned by VW) has also faced backlash on their Facebook page. Their still-running “Truth in Engineering” ad campaign was openly mocked by a commenter who quipped: “Engineering the Truth.”

The true cost of a disingenuous USP

Between lost brand equity and the money they’ve set aside to make things right with consumers, VW’s fake-out is projected to cost the company more than $17 billion. But that figure doesn’t take into account the millions (probably billions) spent on ad campaigns and marketing initiatives aimed at promoting their commitment to crafting more eco-friendly vehicles.

The kicker is that VW chose this path. They chose to construct their public relations initiatives on a platform of eco-friendliness. They chose to have their marketing partners work with a USP that proved to be a house of cards. They chose to openly deceive their consumers, making promises that they knew they could never keep.

And now, they are paying for it.

As a marketer, I feel for the men and women who logged countless hours creating clever campaigns to promote what they believed to be a cutting-edge addition to the automobile market. As the owner of a VW (not a TDI, thankfully), I feel betrayed by the company that I’ve been more or less aligned with for the past decade.

Whether or not you believe the allegation that VW’s lie led to actual deaths, the more practical argument is that it ended countless careers (and probably will end many more, given the financial hit the company is taking), caused considerable consternation for the tens-of-thousands of drivers who bought into the fiction, and made a mockery of the hard work of the marketing professionals who didn’t know their client’s claims were false.

All of this because VW picked a USP that they could not back-up.
The fiasco has produced two important take-aways:

  • Clients: beware of making promises that you can’t keep.
  • Marketers: whenever possible, verify your clients’ claims before you invest your energy into promoting them.

Because no amount of marketing prowess (or money) will bring back your customers’ trust…just ask Volkswagen.

Anne-Marie Botek, Copywriter

IMPACT Marketing & Public Relations, LLC

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