Voltswagen saga shows trust is harder to rebuild than bad jokes

Hugo Griffiths thinks VW needs to act quickly and apologise for the Voltswagen rebrand ‘joke’.

Several years ago I was sitting next to a jovial Volkswagen executive at a dinner in Wolfsburg, Germany, when he remarked in perfect English (putting my total absence of German to shame) that the excellent piece of monkfish we were eating was fresh, having been caught that morning from the canal running alongside the hotel in which we were dining.

I smiled, nodded, and the joke totally went over my head, partly as I failed to twig in time that monkfish is a salt, not freshwater fish, and partly because I wasn’t as familiar with Wolfsburg waterways as he was; the idea of a nice piece of fish being hooked from a canal in a heavily industrialised city is at best far-fetched, and at worst unappealing – hence the leg-pulling joke.

There are parallels here between this story and the recent ‘Voltswagen’ saga. In case you missed it, at the start of the week an unfinished press release was published, before being hastily taken down, on Volkswagen’s American media site, stating that the company would be rebranding its electric cars ‘Voltswagen’ in the US. A neat pun, no doubt, but one that caused a fair degree of confusion among journalists and readers alike.

Editors, in America particularly, will have asked their staff to get on the phone to Volkswagen, seeking clarity if this was an April Fool’s joke that had been published early by mistake, hence its removal, or if the company really did intend to rebrand its US EVs as Voltswagens.

Two things then seem to have happened: first, VW press officers reportedly told stateside journalists that it wasn’t a joke, and the rebrand was indeed going ahead. Next, the full Voltswagen press release was republished.

There has since been a complete volte-face, with VW insiders subsequently reversing that position, confirming that the Voltswagen name was indeed an advance April Fool’s Day prank. Here we get into difficulties.

Jokes are difficult things for individuals to tell and phrase well. Some don’t travel across different countries, and gauging an audience and its mood is crucial – there’s a reason we have professional stand-up comedians, after all. Things get even trickier when it’s a global corporation making the joke; if you or I crack a bad gag, the worst we can expect to happen is a tumbleweed moment of stony silence, or perhaps some mild offence.

But big companies have shareholders and brand images to worry about – just ask Gerald Ratner – and there’s a reason one day of the year, April 1, is reserved for corporates to have a little jolly and play to the crowd, undoing their starched collars and showing their human side to the world. Timing is crucial when telling a joke; this one was mis-timed by several days.

Perhaps more worrying is the way journalists – in America particularly – say they feel they have been misled by Volkswagen, having apparently sought and received verification the Voltswagen name-change was real, passing this confirmation on to their editors, writing stories accordingly and, inadvertently, sowing confusion amongst their readers.

There is much anger – hopefully passing – from those in the US media who say they have been lied to by Volkswagen. And there have been, almost inevitably, parallels drawn with the Dieselgate scandal because of this – surely the last subject the company wanted bringing up again. With Volkswagen’s image particularly hard hit in the States by the emission issue, one has to wonder whether playing around with its corporate identity was a good idea in the first place; not playing it straight with the media was undoubtedly a bad one, though.

So what is Volkswagen to do? The same thing anyone should do when they make a mistake: apologise – quickly, unreservedly, and meaningfully. This is, I suspect, a genuine error with no malicious intent, but it needs putting right immediately, and with total transparency.

Hugo Griffiths

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