THE BLOG
28/09/2015 07:40 BST | Updated 25/09/2016 06:12 BST

VW Scandal Has Cost Company Its Most Important Asset - Its Honest Reputation

There is a savage irony for the advertising industry in the crash of the VW brand. Of all car manufacturer brands VW was the one with the greatest advertising legacy, dating back to the now iconic ads produced by the DDB advertising agency, under the leadership of the legendary Bill Bernbach.

'Lemon' and 'Think Small' mean only one thing to people with any knowledge of advertising - they are adverts that broke new ground, that took an inherent product advantage of German engineering, expressed in such a way that gave VW an emotional connection to its target audience that has underpinned its advertising ever since.

In his book 'The Real Mad Men' author Andrew Cracknell quotes the first line in the strategy paper that DDB wrote to create the first VW ad. The line was 'VW is an honest car'. The ads that evolved from this strategy would see VW's sales increased by 25%. Honesty paid off.

But that was in the halcyon days of the post-World War Two economy boom, where new consumer goods poured into the lives of Baby Boomers with ever growing incomes, so that lots of adverts appeared to sell lots of products.

But some actually did more that. They built brands, which survived and thrived through boom and crash, from one generation to the next. But in those Mad Men Days the economic tide was rising and agencies were braver then, and clients more inclined to see agencies as suppliers of advice and ideas that placed agencies on a higher level than now. It was a time when the client MD and chairmen understood an agency's value, rather than in today's more complex world, where agencies wait in line to get past the procurement department, alongside the paper clip supplier and just get asked, "how cheaply will you do this for?"

Back then agencies would fight hard for what they believed in and none more so that Bernbach, whose views on the relationship between advertising and the brand holds special precedence today.

Bernbach once famously said: "A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people knowing it's bad" and we might in the current situation sagely nod our heads at this.

But perhaps even more fundamental to where VW now find themselves is this quote. "Adapt your techniques to an idea, not an idea to your techniques."

When someone decided to write the algorithm that altered the software in those VW vehicles, they forgot the idea that underpinned the brand they worked for, namely that 'VW is an honest car'.

Brands are not just the 'name on the tin', not just fluff and packaging. A brand's values have to run right through a client's organisation, like the name of the resort runs through a stick of British seaside rock.

These days your brand is customer relationship management. It has to be inherent in how the HR department selects and treats staff, in the relationships you have with suppliers, and above all in the respect you show for your customers.

Here clients would do well to remember the worlds of another famous ad man, David Ogilvy. He said: "The consumer isn't a moron. She is your wife."

Research from the British Advertising Association indicates that people are losing faith in advertising, and that in turn leads to the continuing media portrayal of the advertising industry as slick and superficial pedlars of illusions.

But it was not an ad man who wrote that software and approved its use. The advertising industry holds Bernbach's and Ogilvy's observations to be true, perhaps even truer now in an age of transparency via social media.

Now more than ever clients need to be reminded of this and the advertising industry needs to be as brave as those old Mad Men and tell clients what a brand really means and what the power of advertising can mean for a brand.

VW is learning this lesson right now. The hard way.