Driving a Hard Bargain

Broken trust. Image courtesy of BBC News.

Is Volkswagen, the brand that brought us the instantly likeable “Think small” and “Drivers wanted” campaigns, the brand originally launched as “the people’s car,” the brand that has always prided itself on being in touch with the people…losing touch with the people?

One would think so, judging from its botched social media response to the emissions scandal now known as #VWGate, #dieselgate or, my new personal favorite, “diesel dupe.” How did such a universally loved brand stumble so badly? How did it take them four full days to respond after the news of the EPA investigation first broke on Twitter? How is it that the response they finally made came in the form of a generic, scripted video statement by the company’s recently resigned CEO?

After all, this is not Volkswagen’s first time at the social media rodeo. They’ve been on Facebook since the early days of Facebook. They’ve been posting videos on YouTube since 2005. They’ve been tweeting since 2009. But then, there are always challenges in any social media ecosystem, no matter well established – and especially in the automotive industry.

A rough ride for an industry of deal closers

For an industry so conditioned to close quick deals using old-school sales tactics, the relationship-building nature of social media can be a rough ride – and even rougher in the midst of a crisis.

As in any relationship, social media is a two-way street that gives a brand both the opportunity to talk and the responsibility to listen. It requires a shift in mindset that means connecting in meaningful ways, and that’s been a struggle for the auto industry. Keep in mind, it wasn’t all that long ago that car dealers listed their entire inventory on Facebook and treated social media like mass media.

Along with the challenge of shifting from a traditional sales mindset, there are risks associated with social media for any industry. A recent blog on HubSpot cites the biggest risks as:

  1. Lack of policies, procedures and training
  2. Competitive exposure
  3. Failing to use social media effectively

Volkswagen learned that last one the hard way. The day they issued the Winterkorn apology video, nearly 75% of global social media chatter about Volkswagen was negative. In the ensuing days, the negative sentiment grew as hundreds of people tweeted to VW’s official Twitter account without a single reply.


Engagement has tapered off since the news of the VW scandal first broke, but that doesn’t mean people have stopped tweeting. If anything, they’ve gotten louder and more insistent since VW announced its $1,000 “goodwill package” this past week. That’s a hard bargain for VW owners with virtually worthless vehicles to accept – and it’s backfiring. Dissatisfied and suspicious the deal may be a delay tactic, many continue to demand the company “buy our cars back,” with the hashtag #BuyBackMyTDI.

HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

In one starkly revealing scene right out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dave Culbertson of Columbus, OH, had this Twitter exchange with VW:

Dave: Judging from the continuous stream of complaints with hashtag #vwcares, @VW doesn’t seem to care.

VW: @daveculbertson That is our branded hashtag we use to help our customers, Dave.

Dave: @VW It doesn’t appear that you’re actively monitoring #vwcares.

VW: @daveculbertson We assure you we do. Do you have a car-related issue, Dave?

I’m not sure if Dave has a car-related issue, but I do. So, #vwcares, tell us how you’re going to use social media better to communicate with your customers as they go through this trying time. Let me give you a few suggestions, courtesy of the B2C business blog, which offers this checklist for auto industry social engagement:

  1. Keep a well-maintained blog and social network.
  2. Engage in engagement on a regular basis.
  3. Make Friends and solve problems via YouTube.
  4. Find customers where they are.

Social media marketing moves at lightning speed. If VW wants to be liked (and what marketer doesn’t?), they need to be on their best behavior on the information superhighway. That means less talking and more listening. Because let’s face it, isn’t being heard what we all want most?