Vorsprung durch Fraud

22nd September 2015

Volkswagen, the Lower Saxony automaker and global behemoth, has landed itself in a Teutonic pickle of gargantuan proportion. On Day 5 of the “crisis”, it has announced it will recall 11 million vehicles to correct a ‘faulty’ emissions apparatus (read, deliberately faked bit of kit which conveniently makes VW diesel cars appear 10-40 times more eco-friendly than they actually are).

Much of VW’s recent success has been secured by its ability to ace a trinity of driver needs: superior drivability, combined with superior fuel-efficiency combined with superior environmental responsibility. The three factors normally spar with each other: improve a vehicle’s torque and its fuel efficiency and environmental impact may each go south. The company’s ability to optimise such trade offs was seen as one of the great calling cards of Deutsch Technik – a differentiator applied to its iconic VW brand, alongside its luxury sister-brand, Audi.

It now transpires that they simply made up the Eco bit, in a bravura piece of corporate fraudulence that leaves one slack-jawed.

What? Really? Why?

I had the same feeling when the shenanigans of that world-renowned cheat, Lance Armstrong, finally came to light. Two things struck me about the fixing of Armstrong’s cycling performance through meddling with his bloods: first, was the elaborate nature of the deception which needed a team of extras and facilitators committed to the fraud; second, was the power we confer on winners in any domain, be it cycling or whatever.  By Armstrong simply denying any wrongdoing aggressively, the fraud was kept in the closet for an inordinate length of time.

Thus, a genuine talent for competitive cycling became an obsession for ambition, which in turn led to a commitment to win at all costs.

As the VW story unspools we may (if we’re lucky) get a glimpse of exactly when the greedy cancer took hold.

Unfortunately, however, I suspect the world will now focus on VW’s business results, now that they’ve been caught out. It is maddening to me that journalism so often pursues the derivative story, considering how the wrongdoing (henceforth known as ‘the scandal’ in true derivative fashion) will affect VW’s share prices and ‘consumer confidence’, rather than the abject failure of ethics in a business which has safety and trust at its heart.

Mark my words. This will very soon become a business story of blame, adversity and renewal, rather than one of menacing illegality and ethical collapse.
It’s interesting to hear VW chief, Martin Winterkorn, apologise to customers and to regulators. He neglects to apologise to us –  citizens of the world whose environment is being undermined because of VW’s activity.

In our culture, we are often more consumed by the impact wrongdoing has on perceptions, than the meaning of the wrongdoing itself.

I feel some empathy for the marketing folks and agencies at VW who, for the most part, would not know one end of an emission from the other. Their car brand is, as I write, built on sand. Marketing has no legitimacy in creating a filigree of beautiful values for a company whose core comprehends such rot. And yet, I also wonder: did some of them suspect or know all along that those emission stats were too darned good? That consumers all around the world were purchasing cars in the belief that they would protect their environment, whilst actually they did the opposite?

We marketing professionals need really to shout when we see, from the inside, that a business abjectly contravenes its own stated and lovingly trumpeted values.
Because it’s not good enough. And because when Vorsprung – German for ‘advancement’, famously used in Audi advertising – is built on cheating, we’re all going to hell in a hand-basket.


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