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VW Should Think Small Again

[fa icon="calendar'] Sep 29, 2015 10:05:19 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Volkswagen’s recent emissions scandal has been the subject of countless media reports,VW Bug with news organizations such as Huffington Post posting nearly hourly updates. Even stories focused on financial or reputational damage touch on a deep sense of betrayal. This wound was captured best in a New York Times op-ed piece called “Me and My Jetta: How VW Broke My Heart” in which Richard Conniff, a science and nature writer, tells his story of buying a new Jetta in 2009 because it was “clean diesel.” In fact, it had just been deemed “Green Car of the Year” by the Sierra Club Executive Director.
In those days, diesel engines were the environmental winners among gas-fueled cars, promising to be both cheaper to run and good for the planet. Those are the same attributes on which VW has positioned its brand since its first U.S. ad campaign in the 1960s advised buyers to “Think Small” and buy the Beetle.

After all, the German word volkswagen literally means “people’s car.”

VW made its Beetle wildly successful as “the car of the hippie movement." And ever since, VWs have been to a more or less extent the cars of the counter culture.

This brand persona is in direct opposition to the company’s culture. As James Stewart writes, quoting a former VW executive:

“…a scandal, especially one involving emissions, was all but inevitable at Volkswagen… (due to) the company’s isolation (in its company town of Wolfsburg), its clannish board and a deep-rooted hostility to environmental regulations among its engineers….

“People (at VW) have a completely uncritical view of cars and their impact on the environment because they all make a living from the industry. …Volkswagen is seen as having a national mission to provide employment to the German people. That’s behind the push to be No. 1 in the world. They’ll look the other way about anything."

Unfortunately, many companies believe in the jobs over the environment argument. In fact, some make their living from products that we know will kill us and our planet. Fossil fuels, tobacco companies, and the asbestos business have for years fought relentlessly against environmental and safety regulations.

But none of those companies positioned itself as green, whereas VW used its environmental positioning in the U.S. for 65 years.

That positioning went beyond VW cars. The company made a concerted effort to make diesel fuel appear to be the environmental standard, even putting a miles per gallon indicator in the center of the dashboard.

It’s not just the scandal itself, but the cynicism of VW’s environmental claims that makes this such a staggering betrayal.

Those in sustainability bemoan the damage the VW scandal might inflict on the entire Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) movement. The voice of that movement, Triple Pundit, ran a piece by Leon Kaye using the VW example to expose what has gone wrong with CSR, revealing “a global business culture that awards and rewards itself on ‘sustainability’ and ‘responsibility’ but frequently does not match accolades with accomplishments.”

Of course, business rhetoric should support real action, and most does. Business has in many instances embraced sustainability, especially when its environmental efforts lower costs as well. But I believe the problem with CSR is much more insidious: a company can achieve the highest CSR score but still make lethal products that kill people and planet. And let’s face it, cars that run on fossil fuels are just as big a problem as fossil fuels themselves.

Governments and consumers are calculating what are bound to be enormous financial penalties. Some believe that the German government will have to step in to save the company as the U.S. saved Detroit. This is a huge opportunity: with the German Chancellor and Economy Minister calling for Electric Vehicles incentives, why couldn’t the same government predicate a VW bail out on using its vaunted engineering prowess to create an electric car for the people? And use the fines to build out the charging station network and speed conversion from fossil fuels, the source of over 50% of its energy, to renewables?

Many of the articles on the scandal mention VW’s roots in Nazi Germany, a link that until now has been overshadowed by its environmental positioning. Why not bring back that loyalty by leading electric car technology as it once led small cars?

If consumers can be persuaded to Think Small, they can surely be persuaded to Think Green, especially by a company steeped in earth-friendly heritage. Environmentalists are notorious forgivers – and who doesn’t love the idea of an electric “people’s car” — especially after some serious mea culpas.

Photo courtesy of Sir Mildred Pierce via Flickr CC.

Carol2Carol Pierson Holding is President and Founder, Holding Associates. Carol serves as Guest Blogger for CSRHub. Her firm has focused on the intersection of brand and social responsibility, working with Cisco Systems, Wilmington Trust, Bankrate.com, the US EPA, Yale University’s School of Environmental Sciences, and various non-profits. Before founding Holding Associates, Carol worked in executive management positions at Siegel & Gale, McCann Erickson, and Citibank. She is a Board Member of AMREF (African Medical and Research Foundation). Carol received her AB from Smith College and her MBA from Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 15,000+ companies from 135 industries in 132 countries. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.


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[fa icon="comment"] 1 Comment posted in asbestos, corporate social responsibility, CSR, Electric Vehicles incentives, fossil fuels, Sierra Club, Uncategorized, Volkswagen, Think Green, My Jetta, VW Beetle, Carol Pierson Holding, emmissions scandal, VW

Sex, Lies and the Electric Car

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 27, 2011 8:38:06 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding


By Carol Pierson Holding

As though the merging of electric car and the Internet were already a well-known fact, BMW, a leader in CSR among automakers, dared to name its hybrid/electric car brand BMWi. “i”? Sure, thanks to Apple’s ubiquitous advertising campaigns, “i” is as well known as its predecessor “e” for electronic (email, e-commerce), and “x” for one level higher (xBox). Still, you have to wonder why BMW chose consumer shorthand for Internet, for innovation and cool, over eco or green, to signal environmentalism. Or even “e” for “electric car.”

Picture 4
Could BMW be doing what so many have failed to do—move the overall positioning of energy efficiency towards something, well, sustainable? At least when it comes to cars? Green appeal comes and goes. For many efforts, green positioning has given way to saving money — remember Energy Star’s transition in the 1990s? And more recently, the Prius’ push beyond celebrity environmentalists to mass market, cost-conscious consumers? But saving gas only goes so far, especially when gas is cheap.

KC Golden, the visionary behind the Seattle-based Climate Solutions, pretty much predicted an i-car evolution.  KC grew up in Los Angeles, the apex of the automobile worship.  He witnessed what having a cool car –a lot of horsepower under the hood —could do when it came to getting the girl. That link between horsepower and sex is permanently fused in youthful minds. And it never really goes away.

Today, KC lives in Seattle, where the major source of carbon emissions, about 40%, is from cars. To lower emissions, we must either get people to ride public transportation, which in the West is extremely tough, or more practically, get them to drive low-emission cars. What KC sees as the primary challenge is breaking our insistent connection, even in politically correct Seattle, between sex appeal and horsepower.

And what better voice to change attitudes about cars than the car companies themselves, starting just where you’d expect it to start, with Volkswagen—the first small car brand. KC sent me this typically counter-intuitive Volkswagen ad, which mocks drivers who still believe that horsepower enhances ego. Its tag line is “lowest ego emissions:” VW TV Commercial.

Picture 2
I’ll bet this commercial is not all that funny to BMW drivers. It appeals to those whose ego is wrapped around environmentalism, the very group KC wants to enlarge. I’m not saying that KC is wrong about green being sexy one day. In fact, even BMW thought the time had come in its first and second tries at an electric car. First was the MiniE, an electric MiniCooper. Launched in China, it was positioned as the first of its MegaCityVehicle line— a luxury version of Indian car-maker Tata’s Nano. Then the company tried the ActiveE, a sedan that was “bringing sustainable electric mobility on the road” as their ActiveE spokeperson, a female sustainability consultant intoned on their website. The ActiveE does not look “muscular;” its spokesperson is not sexy.

But with BMW’s third try, the BMWi, I think BMW has found its answer. Even though the tag line for the BMWi is “Born Electric,” the message is about performance first. BMWi uses battery power not only to cut emissions, but also to boost performance. Sure, the women in the BMWi web video are good-looking, but not blatantly sexy. And someday, maybe just the energy savings will be enough.

With the BMWi, BMW returns to its roots. It’s a smart strategy and may take us right where we want to go. As smart branders know, a slow transition works best with consumers. German luxury carmakers promoting behavioral modification in service of sustainability? Now that’s brand evolution.

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.  

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[fa icon="comment"] 14 Comments posted in ActiveE, Apple, corporate social responsibility, CSR, electric car, electric vehicles, Energy Star, KC Golden, Seattle, Tata Nano, Uncategorized, Volkswagen, xBox, MiniCooper, sustainability, MegaCityVehicle, MiniE, Prius, BMW, BMWi, Carol Pierson Holding, Climate Solutions, CSRHub, eco

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