Opinion

Volkswagen: Is great advertising enough to make people stick with a brand despite major PR disasters?

Having bought his first VW at the age of 18 and stuck with the brand ever since, Mumbrella’s Dean Carroll examines whether the emissions scandal would make him buy differently next time around

The arrest of Audi chief executive officer Rupert Stadler earlier this week over the Volkswagen emissions scandal got me thinking. As a VW-Audi fanboy of sorts (my first car, so to speak, at the age of 18 was a classic 1972 VW Camper Van and I’ve since owned a VW Polo, a VW Golf GTI and an Audi TT), I asked myself: Would I buy another vehicle from the Wolfsburg-based auto giant, given the alleged fraud seemingly designed to deceive customers, dealers and regulators?

It was not an easy question for me to answer and given the prohibitively high cost of driving here in Singapore and the amazing public transport system we enjoy, it was not a conundrum I needed to solve anytime soon.

However, the fact that I would have to ponder further and didn’t have an immediate answer led to even more interesting questions. Why am I hesitating? Is it because VW products are so good? Is it because my closest friends loved the firm’s vehicles too and I gave into peer pressure without even knowing it?

Or is it because Volkswagen has such a rich history of advertising stretching back to the very beginning of modern marketing some 60 odd years ago? An ad heritage that may have inspired goodwill in me, and many millions of others, to the point whereby we might be willing to forgive what could turn out to be criminal behaviour?

Adland guru Bob Hoffman would certainly say it’s the latter. On VW, he once told me that advertising quality and longevity actually counts for a great deal to the man on the street : “They went through this horrendous problem in the last couple of years over lying about emissions and all that crap.

“But the brand equity they built by spending billions of dollars over half a century on good advertising kept them afloat. If they hadn’t created that positive feeling about the brand they would have been in danger of going under. So far at least, they have survived.

“These days, because of the metrics of online advertising, we are measuring nothing but short-term results. Take a walk through the supermarket and tell me if you see any brands that were built by online advertising. I can’t find a single soap, soda, beer or shampoo that was.”

But is good old Bob right? Let’s consider the evidence. It all started in 1959 with the classic Doyle Dane Bernbach ‘Think Small’ ad. Work that it is often said changed advertising forever and indeed kick-started the multi-billion dollar ad industry we know today.

Then came the infamous ‘Lemon’ campaign, which was such a water cooler moment that even Don Draper got jealous in a fictitious (but no doubt based on a true story) scene from Mad Men.

It also led to the insightful documentary Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads? by British filmmaker Joe Marcantonio, son of Alfredo who served as VW’s advertising manager in the 1970s.

Jumping to 1984, we witnessed ‘The Man’. A TVC that hasn’t dated well – they rarely do – but certainly caused a stir at the time. Given the 1980s Bacchanalian references, VW was no longer ‘The People’s Car’ it started life as in the 1930s when it was hijacked as a concept by the fascist German leader Adolf Hitler.

Cut to 2012 and the ‘Door Thunk’ ad focused on ‘The Power of German engineering’. 

There were many other truly astonishing ads across the decades too from VW. Some won with humour, others with a great aesthetic, more still with a focus on bulletproof product quality and some by simply tapping into the zeitgeist of the time.

Other brands I love have also gone through their own public relations disasters. Apple had me from 1998 onwards when the colourful iMac was launched. I’ve stuck with them through multiple iPod, iPad, iPhone and MacBook purchases. And yet there have been questions raised over treatment of the labour force in China and the firm’s green credentials. Not by coincidence it would seem, Apple too has produced great adverts over the years.

Looking to the skies, Emirates remains my favourite airline to fly with by a country mile, despite the government subsidies scandal and general unease over Middle East business models. Once again, Emirates too runs great ad campaigns as it happens.

Having processed all of this, it seems obvious that most of us wouldn’t buy a bad product just because the advertising was great. The product has to be great. And when the advertising is great in unison, there is definitely a snowball effect of positive consumer sentiment that leads to longevity and loyalty. In short, almost unbreakable brand equity.

Possibly enough of the stuff for us to ignore the odd PR disaster, just so long as the product remains first-class – Vorsprung durch Technik, as Bartle Bogle Hegarty founder Sir John Hegarty put it when he popularised the German phrase in those game-changing ads – and the marketing hits the grade. 

Perhaps I’ll think differently if I ever do leave Singapore one day and I’m confronted with the real-world choice when buying another car. For now though, I’ll just enjoy the ads.

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