Coming Clean: Inside Volkswagen

Last week our creative agency, enso, was contacted by a producer at This American Life and asked to provide our point of view on the question: What is the next ad that Volkswagen should run to start to rebuild their company?

Michael Horn, President of VW America

Our first instinct was an ad wouldn’t do it. When you fundamentally and intentionally break the trust of the public for your own gain, your words are meaningless. It would take actions not words. Saying sorry would ring hollow.

So, our first thought was maybe they should run an ad describing their intention to rebuild trust and do so by not advertising for awhile. Go away, get to the bottom of what happened and do the work necessary to start to rebuild relationships with their employees, their customers and the public at large. This didn’t seem like enough, though.

Next we thought maybe they should try to mitigate the damage they had done not only to their customers but also to the planet. Restitution made real sense, it was time to pay the piper. So maybe in 2016, rather than spending $4 billion on advertising globally, they should invest the same amount in clean energy technologies to help offset the carbon impact of their deception. This may be fair and would have some impact, but somehow it just seemed like guilt money. It seemed like just another big corporate rule breaker trying to buy their way out of trouble.

Finally, we settled on an idea that we thought was a necessary first step in order to rebuild trust — they needed to first come clean. We also thought there was an opportunity to shift this from a “blaming experience” into a “learning experience”. So, rather than just identifying the people who did this at Volkswagen and holding them accountable, maybe this could be viewed as an opportunity for all of us to learn something about what kind of business culture could lead people to participate in such an intricate and deliberate fraud.

The only real and credible way for this to be accomplished would be by turning the investigation over to the best investigative journalists given unprecedented access from Volkswagen to tell the story to the world. Imagine an independent group like Frontline or Alex Gibney, the director of the Smartest Guys in the Room leading this project called, Coming Clean: Inside Volkswagen. By handing this over, Volkswagen would start to show their willingness to be totally transparent and demonstrate their real commitment to getting answers.

Not only would this film series effectively get to the bottom of what happened and tell it in an engaging way — but it could also start to illuminate the specific things in the Volkswagen culture that led to this.

From this Volkswagen could commit to partner with another third party to review the findings and develop new rubric for business — new standards of business ethics. Something that could be the gold standard for others to study and learn from. Something valuable to the world could come from this and we could help ensure this never happens again.

In the end, coming clean would be the first step to brand rehabilitation for Volkswagen and ultimately be part of returning them to a position of trust and sustainable growth. This could create true shared value — good for the brand and some good for the world as well.

FYI: You can listen to the segment on This American Life which features Kirk Souder, enso co-founder, representing our idea and features snippets from a promo ad we created for the show. Thanks to our partners at Lime Studios and Robot Repair for help in production.