Volkswagen admits it ‘let you down’

Is the troubled automaker's apology yesterday enough to regain the trust of Canadians?

Following similar campaigns in other markets earlier this month, Volkswagen’s Canadian arm acknowledged its emissions scandal in a national ad blitz yesterday, the first time it has done so since it was revealed in September that several of its diesel engines had “defeat devices” installed to deceive emissions regulators.

The auto manufacturer took out full-page ads in 100 daily newspapers across Canada yesterday and created a video that begins with an image of the Volkswagen logo, asking “Remember when this stood for integrity and trust? So do we.” The rest of the ad admits that the company has let consumers down and pledges to restore the trust they once put in the brand.



Both the print and video ads direct Canadians, particularly Volkswagen owners, to a dedicated site that features a statement from Volkswagen’s Canadian president and CEO Maria Stenström and a VIN lookup tool so drivers can find out if their vehicle is affected by the scandal. It also has an FAQ section detailing the issue itself, what the automaker is doing to remedy it, what it means for consumers and how the Canadian arm of the company fits into the whole process.

“The national advertising campaign explains the impact of the 2.0L TDI emissions issue on our proud legacy, current values, and trust in the Volkswagen brand,” the company explained in the form of an answer in the FAQ section of the site. “This advertising is an important step towards acknowledging the damage done to Volkswagen’s relationship with Canadians and declaring our full commitment to restoring faith in our brand.”

The campaign also comes as world leaders meet in Paris for the COP 21 conference on climate change. In the city, U.K.-based arts collective Brandalism has taken over hundreds of transit ad spaces with parody ads that cast doubts on companies’ environmental efforts, including one that takes aim at Volkswagen and other auto manufacturers under the headline “We’re sorry we got caught.”

Though needed, the campaign has come very late, says Daniel Torchia, managing director of Torchia Communications, which is especially disappointing since the Q&A section of the website is still fraught with lack of comment from the company. Though that’s probably due to legal issues, he says, that just makes it seems as though the company should have come out with this campaign sooner.

The ad makes Robert Levy, president and founder of consumer research company BrandSpark, think of Maple Leaf Foods. Every year, BrandSpark gives its Most Trusted awards to brands based on a consumer survey and in 2008, Maple Leafs Foods was one of the top-ranked brands for packaged meat in the survey when a listeriosis outbreak resulting in the deaths of 22 people was linked to cold cuts coming out of one of its facilities. The next year, however, its ranking in the survey did not change. Levy credits that to a video released by the company after the outbreak, featuring president and CEO Michael McCain alone on camera, frankly discussing what the issue was and offering an apology to Canadians.

“There was a face, a CEO taking responsibility, explaining what happened, showing he understood the gravity of the situation and showing what steps his company was taking,” Levy says. “It wasn’t slick, but it was honest and even painful to watch. Volkswagen’s is slick, but it doesn’t explain what happened. There isn’t even an actual apology. There’s this corporate logo and the claim that they once had integrity, which, if you’ve been following the story, you have to question because people there lied about it.”

Even though this particular campaign is coming out of the Canadian arm of the company, whose role in the scandal is still being investigated by authorities, Torchia says showing the Canadian employees behind the brand would still help address peoples’ skepticism of large companies like Volkswagen.

Also, the campaign site does provide a wealth of information on what the issue is and what’s being done, but Levy says the brand should be the one taking on the job of condensing the information consumers need.

“Not every person is going to go to that website after seeing these ads,” he says. “If this is going to be the main part of the campaign, it needs to do more by itself. It’s their responsibility to take ownership of the message instead of getting consumers to seek out this information and these statements by CEOs. What would have shown the most integrity is telling everyone, clearly, that the old CEO is gone, these people responsible have been fired and [here's] what you can expect to see from us as this goes on.”

Even though Volkswagen may have gone for a minimalist approach because the coverage on the emissions scandal has been so extensive, Levy points out that many consumers still might not have all the answers they are looking for, especially the owners who still have questions about things like how their vehicles are going to have this “defeat device” removed, or if they will be receiving compensation packages.

“There should be some kind of link to their global CEO and the main apology message, then something that goes to the Canadian CEO to talk about what Canadian owners can expect,” he says. “And the owners are the ones who they need to be worried about first before they start trying to establish trust with potential new buyers.”