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Authenticity of trust in a brand – Reflection on the VW case


Authenticity of trust in a brand – Reflection on the VW case

“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” – Abraham Lincoln

Since early fall 2015 the world has been watching the reputation of Volkswagen unravel before them. It began with the revelation that Volkswagen had intentionally created a defeat device to rig their diesel automobiles to falsify their greenhouse emissions. This device programmed auto emissions to meet diesel emission standards. This deception was finally outed when the International Council on Clean Transport decided to test a number of popular diesel-fuelled vehicles that performed well in their government-mandated tests. The results came in: VW automobiles were omitting up to 40% more greenhouse gases than reported. VW has now admitted that they cheated on emissions testing with almost 11 million vehicles outfitted with these defeat devices.

How would you feel if you were driving a Volkswagen?

What happened? What were they thinking? How could someone think they could get away with deception on such a global scale? 

Can you still trust them?

Those are the questions, people ask themselves everyday when they hear of yet another scandal involving corporations. Defeat devices, Sony hacking, Ikea horsemeat, collapsing factories in Bangladesh—it goes on and on. After years of corporate corruption, trust in business is starting to hit all-time lows.

When trust is shattered, what does it mean to the brand character since character speaks volumes of the brand?

The Edelman Trust Barometer recorded that 80% of people worldwide do not trust businesses. 80%! But trust still matters. Statistics that display the trustworthiness of a particular business will motivate people to buy from and recommend that business. So, for many companies, the “bottom line” is the only motivating factor to pursue trust in the brand. The average consumer is aware of this fact so the 80% mistrust is understandable. If trust is simply a “marketing ploy” then it defeats the purpose!

When there's mistrust the brand image is marred. What if the “bottom line” wasn’t the only reason to do business? What if, in addition to assuming a big pie in the marketshare, a business’s core purpose was to provide solutions, create employment, and make the world a little better?

It takes an authentic character to conduct business ethically. Character is the foundation of trust. To build any relationship, especially in business, there has to be trust. But where does trust come from? It comes from morals and ethics—the very core of character.

Character is the foundation stone that all activities are built upon. Good foundation—good business practices, bad foundation—bad practices. This is quite elementary. Character trickles down from the boardroom, into marketing activities, the products you sell, the platforms you promote your products on, and how you treat your employees. At issue is the corporate conscience—how ethical you are as a team member, as an executive, as the chief-in-command. Every person in the organization is a walking brand. A well-established brand character is instrumental in strengthening trust in the brand. Trust, therefore, has to be earned over and over in order to maintain the brand's authenticity.

In the VW's case, they have super intelligence to design cheat software and were successful in keeping it concealed for years. But deception doesn't last forever. One wonders, what else are they hiding?

Reputation is built upon and can easily crumble with just one scandal. The foundation of a character-centred business, therefore, must be consistent in these three practices:

1.  Deliver on your word – Be vigilant and live out your brand promise.

2. Build a moral reputation – Be honest, transparent and ethical within and outside the walls of your business. It must be reinforced daily.

3. Enforce transparency in communication – Be genuine and consistent in establishing effective communication. It is a cornerstone of any business. With genuine communication, trust in the brand will last and be valued.

Trustworthiness is what customers are really looking for. Trust was what people used to have in Volkswagen. How can they restore trust when there seems to be a lack of principle in being ethical? 

A lesson from the VW case: What truly is of most importance in the long run – cheat to outsmart the system or be principled to earn trust and loyalty? 

GenesisXD, is an award-winning Expereince Design firm. We consult clients on communicating their stories through innovative design, branding and marketing communications