01 October 2015 10:23:40 IST

A brand is like a piece of fine crystal

The impact brands can have on people is tremendous — it can be good or disastrous for you

Who is a friend? A friend is someone you can trust, who never takes you for granted and who is absolutely reliable when it comes to the crunch. He/she does not let you down.

The test for a brand is to be this friend to a customer. Mike Isaacson said it best, when he said: “Brands are like pieces of fine crystal — they take time to create and are easy to break”; just like friendship.

But has Volkswagen, at least the diesel version, been this to its customers? Hardly. It has, in fact, let down its targets — its customers, investors and even the media. And this is something the brand will have to live down eventually. There is another interesting consequence of this. The scale of this impact will certainly affect the entire German economy and make people wary of German engineering, which used to be a big selling proposition in global markets.

I came into advertising over thirty years ago because I was inspired by it. It enthralled me. It fascinated me and I wanted to be part of this wonderful industry that fuelled dreams, and sales. One of the ads that I really loved was the Volkswagen “think small” campaign, given below.

What was so special about this ad and why did ‘Advertising age’ classify this ad as the greatest of the last century? Let’s go back in time to the 60s. The US has, by and large, been a vast country with great distances. People love big cars as it shows affluence — the larger your car, the more successful you are. It was in this environment that Volkswagen launched the Beetle, a small car. The car boldly flaunted its smallness and had ads that poked fun at itself, like how a basketball player could not get into the car and how its parts were interchangeable.

Ironically, it was a German car, when post war sentiment against the Germans was still strong ( Volkswagen was the car that Hitler proudly called “people’s car”), that became a huge success against the odds. The Beetle was to become an iconic brand and Volkswagen went on to become one of the biggest successes globally, selling millions of cars in multiple countries, harping on its reliability and the strength of German engineering. This ad proclaims that the brand is so reliable, that people think, “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen” .

From where to where

I am sure you have been following the news on Volkswagen in recent weeks, where the auto major has been under increasing scrutiny, and found wanting. To put it crudely, it has been deceitful and fudged pollution tests in order to conform to standards; and it has faced ignominy, erosion of brand value.

Numbers are mind boggling — 482,000 cars affected, including every possible brand. Each vehicle could face a fine of $37,500 and 18 billion the possible penalties the brand is likely to face. It may take two years before it can sell its diesel cars in the US and the stock has lost 20 per cent of its value. To put it simply from my point of view, a brand that I admired enormously is now something that the world looks on with anger, suspicion and distrust. What a fall!

Brands take time to build

In today’s highly connected world, brand can be built in a shorter time frame compared to the old ‘brick and mortar’ world and we do have examples of brands like Google and Amazon that have been built in a shorter period than others. But whether you are an internet company or an old-world company, branding needs investment, consistency, resources and a clear vision to be built. At the cornerstone of the brand’s success is a reliable product or service, and this is where Volkswagen has failed. Its product has not delivered on accepted global standards and to make matters worse, they have deceived the world. It may take ages before people forget or forgive — it is difficult to forgive the treacherous act of your best friend.

Many of us had given this status to Volkswagen, me, as an admirer, and several car users around the world. Now they feel cheated, angry and disillusioned. This is the impact that brands can have on people and that can be good when it works for you; and disastrous when it is against you, as Volkswagen is just realising.

So remember to protect your brand, zealously as you would the most precious crystal in your collection.

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