The irony is unbelievable. Volkswagen has been touting its “German engineering” for decades. Until now, you could find the term in every TV spot, every print ad and throughout their websites. The words were the cornerstone of their brand. “That’s the power of German engineering,” was one phrase. “Isn’t it time for some German engineering?” was another. Of course, what VW was trying to do was build an equivalency between their cars and the premium brands of BMW, Mercedes and Porsche. Volkswagen is literally the “people’s car” after all, and this was a chance for the people to have some of the best automotive engineering at a more affordable price.
Was it working? Meh. The brand had about 1 percent market share in the United States, so, arguably, it wasn’t getting a lot of traction before their current debacle. In recent years, VW had begun to overcome the quality issues of the late 90s and early 2000s. They were building a variety of cars from affordable entry-level models like the Golf, to more upscale euro sedans like the Passat. U.S. sales were wobbly, but in Europe and China, sales were much higher than here. But, somewhere along the way, VW’s German engineers found a way to add a whole new meaning to the term.
So, by now, just about the whole world knows that VW used a software program to rig their “clean diesel” cars to pass emissions tests and then switch to much higher performing and much higher polluting settings when the test was over. The so-called clean diesels were putting out as much as 40 times the allowable levels of certain emissions. This is, of course, undeniably wrong. Still, you have to admit, it’s some pretty clever engineering, German or otherwise.
But talk about having your brand message blow up in your face. The VW brand is now lying in smithereens. Right now, there are two kinds of car owners in the world: Those that don’t own a VW and are thinking to themselves, “I will never buy one of those,” and current VW owners, including, but not limited to, clean diesel owners, who are muttering “What did I get myself into? I thought I had bought a really cool car.”
By driving their brand off a cliff, VW has managed to generate collateral damage among many other brands, as well. Let’s start with Audi, an in-house brand for VW that has been showing strong growth in the last few years. The same rigged software was put into Audi and another VW brand, Skoda. The Audi brand is not as well-known in this country, so their tagline has escaped notice in much of the coverage of the VW scandal. For some years, Audi has been using the slogan “Truth in Engineering.” Seriously. OK, not so much anymore, since it has been wiped clean from their website, but Audi has some explaining to do, too.
Yet, while these wounds are all self inflicted, next to take a hit were the brands of BMW and Mercedes, which saw their stock prices drop by several percentage points out of nothing more than guilt by association. Investors feared that if one German carmaker was up for premeditated dastardly deeds, then perhaps others were, as well. Both brands have vehemently denied using similar tactics. Their owners are hoping they are being truthful about their engineering.
Time will tell, but perhaps the biggest hit a brand will take is the country of Germany itself. If China’s manufacturing brand is one of low-cost production, but sometimes questionable quality and business ethics, Germany’s was the opposite—high quality, well made, impeccable ethics, and not cheap, either. Volkswagen is one of the country’s major employers, roughly the equivalent of General Motors with worldwide reach and a broad range of brands. (The diesel scandal affects 400,000 cars in the U.S., but more than 11 million worldwide.) At the very least, VW has tarnished the German brand of excellence in automotive design and manufacturing. At the worst, it has generated an undertone of doubt for any brand that has identified itself closely with German values.
Here in the U.S., VW has been caught in the snare of its own promise—German engineering turned inside out. Their brand is now a shambles. Owners are storming the castle looking for answers. Non-owners are swearing to avoid the brand for the foreseeable future. This will be a far tougher recovery than Toyota or GM has faced recently. VW has disgraced itself, thrown doubt on other brands, and, ultimately, that of their home country, to boot. And that’s the power of German engineering gone very wrong.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal, the Reading Eagle and Lehigh Valley Business.