My brand has a fairly open culture, where employees can ask deep and searching questions of the leadership team. We also believe strongly in ethics and culture, and have done a good job building our brand on firm doses of both.
As such, I was perhaps not that surprised to get a number of questions from employees across our company about the VW situation.
Their questions fell into three main areas: did we do business with VW, either directly or via one of our global subsidiaries; did senior executives drive VW cars and did they turn up at customer premises driving one; and was VW on our company car scheme?
As you can imagine, the answers to all three were not simple, and no amount of spin was going to easily extricate me from this one.
Having consulted my crisis management team, the view was to hope that other car companies might be dragged into the debacle (they have not as yet) and/or play the waiting game and say that it is too early to make any snap decisions. This does, however, raise a number of issues for marketers.
In today’s economy, can brand owners pick and choose who they do business with? We have seen the likes of Levi’s and Louis Vuitton seek to control the reselling of their goods on Amazon and eBay, and I’m quite sure they may have turned their noses up at some customers walking into their stores (think Julia Roberts and ‘Pretty Woman’). I am also convinced that some marketing agencies may have in the past refused to pitch for tobacco brands and the like, but few salesmen would turn away business.
And how far down your supply chain do you look at the ethics of who you do business with? Would you seek to prevent your employees filling up their cars with petrol from a brand that had an environmental problem; or banking with a financial institution that had been found to have rigged a few indices; or buying a newspaper from a media company that had fallen foul of the law once or twice?
The reality is that we live in a very interwoven society. Although we may want to be seen to be pure and virtuous, we have more brand choices than ever before. However, it can take a lot to change buying behaviour on the back of a crisis – even one the size of VW’s scandal.