Crisis of Identity

The concept of fun isn’t one we’d habitually associate with brand-Volkswagen, especially of late. But all that appears set to change. 

Not fun. VW’s Autostadt. Image credit: Irish Times

In matters of crisis management, it is essential to maintain control of the narrative. Lose that, and the organisation becomes untethered, prey to attack from all sides. Inaction, by default, becomes one’s chosen action in both the eyes of critics and the wider public.

When Volkswagen’s systematic and sophisticated emissions gaming came to light in 2015, the carmaker seemed to have frozen in disbelief and denial. Regardless of how matters were being handled internally, the glacial pace of their response was viewed in the court of public opinion, both as an admission of culpability (which was unquestionable) and as a lack of decisive leadership. VW, through their inertia, had allowed the story spiral out of their control.

Spool forward three years and having emerged from a position of suppression, we are finally seeing the giant move forward. Having apparently weathered the worst of the reputational and financial fallout of the 2015 revelations, major changes at supervisory board level have recently taken place, with Hans Dieter Pötsch appointing Herbert Diess as Chief Executive Officer, replacing Matthias Müller.

However, more surprising news came earlier this week when Volkswagen’s chief marketing officer, Jochen Sengpiehl, at a press briefing in Berlin, announced impending changes to the core VW brand logo next year in anticipation of the rollout of a new series of fully-electric Volkswagen-badged vehicles.

These cars VW hopes, will spearhead a pivotal re-evaluation of the brand in the eyes and psyche’s of customers, revolted by the depth of the carmaker’s mendacity and deception. Last altered (tweaked might be a more accurate term) as recently as 2012, the VW logo in its current three-dimensional form dates back to the millennium.

All carmakers engage in some form of logo management from time to time, so in isolation, this shouldn’t be a matter of grave concern, especially given that historically, VW has managed its brand identity with some sensitivity.

Unfortunately, listening to what VW’s marketer-in-chief has to say, one is left, less with strong misgivings, but something more akin to genuine alarm; Sengpiehl informing journalists, “The brand is not in good shape compared to previous years, as the marque lost some of its emotional appeal by trying to be “too German,”

‘Too German’: Only a marketer could come up with a statement like this. Is there any car company more quintessentially German? A carmaker who in the immediate run-up to the 2015 annus-horriblis employed the advertising tagline of ‘Das Auto’? A company which has made its reputation on solid Germanic qualities of dependability and integrity?

By etch-a-sketching decades of VW’s identity and to all intents and purposes informing existing customers that they were, after all, dupes, how does VW’s marketing wizard see the brand’s future? Those of a sensitive nature really ought to look away now. “The big challenge is: How do we get people into the electric world, we want people to have fun with us. We need to get more [sic] colorful.”

To compound this chilling revelation, Sengpiehl is inviting ad agencies to pitch for VW’s business in order to further this new, informal, more (God alone help us…) Dr. Zetsche identity. The plan is to open marketing hubs within VW’s major markets to create more targeted communications. The forthcoming logo will also be designed to better work across digital channels and customer devices, as ‘the people’s car’ attempts to make itself relevant once more.

With an alleged €20 billion allocated to the development of a family of electric vehicles, the first of which is to debut in two years time, VW appears to be spending its way out of the mess it has got itself into. But unlike most product-related R&D, where expenditure is measured and quantified, the €millions likely to be squandered on this nonsense won’t be.

For some time now, industry watchers have wondered what VW’s next move would be. What we knew was that change would be inevitable, but the crux of the matter was how that change would be enacted and where. The push to electric was inevitable (if accelerated by events), within the rationale of an industry forced to act by ever-tightening environmental regulation.

What was less obvious and wholly unwelcome is the notion, which has taken hold throughout the industry like a contagion, that the dark arts of marketing, showbiz and hype will magic the dazzle which the motorcar has lost in the eyes of the consumer back to life.

Volkswagen is just the latest in a growing list of storied brands who have elected to cast their heritage aside in order to regain the narrative in a world already well past the shocking revelations of 2015. And while unedifying, it’s probably inevitable.

You are duly notified : VW’s future is unlikely to be cool, but it probably will be hot.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

2 thoughts on “Crisis of Identity”

  1. Corporate Germany’s continued attempts at emulating Silicon Valley are simply embarrassing.

    The combination of a latent inferiority complex (‘ve speak Englisch viz a strange akzent, ve still wear shirts viz collars’) and a sense of self-righteousness has always been one of the key weaknesses of this country in an international context. The recurring motif of a perceived ‘coolness deficit’ is a symptom of this.

    Quite often, these kinds of re-branding efforts are also partially driven by executives wanting to literally leave their mark on a company they either have ‘saved’ or are in the process of ‘reinventing’. Mercedes under Doc Zee is a combination of both, whereas Lufthansa is a recent example of the former:

    1. We’ve touched upon this on DTW in the past. Any corporate entity messes with their visual identity at their peril. Latterly we have seen examples from the likes of FCA – endless fiddling with the Fiat logo, Lancia’s emasculated shield and flag and Alfa Romeo’s airbrush of history – and who can forget the miracle and wonder of Linda’s non-meshing chevrons?

      Logo enhancement / revision rarely, if ever marks an improvement – either aesthetically or in business-uplift terms. It’s not as if it can be quantified anyway. Yet one never hears of anyone within the Marketing function falling on their swords for the failure which inevitably follows.

      To anyone who isn’t in marketing or branding – (for those who are, this is of course a field-day) – VW’s announcement heralds the screech of tortured rubber before the impact with stout object. One’s imagination runs riot as to what Mr. Sengpiehl has up his well turned sleeve. A giant emoticon? The classic VW logo in fur? Perhaps a roundel made from Haribo Starmix?

      I hate to get all Cassandra about matters, but this won’t end well…

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