Brands Behaving Badly

I’m a Volkswagen guy. My first three cars were used VWs. The first new car I ever bought was a Jetta. And I currently own two members of the family: an Audi and a vintage Bug.

But I’m also a brand guy. I believe brands should stand for something. I read product labels and check the fine print and ask questions. I make virtually every buying decision based on whether or not I like a company’s purpose and quality, and I’ll shift my loyalties when I feel a company’s values don’t reflect my own. If I have one bad experience with a brand at any touchpoint, I’ll probably give them another chance to make good. More than one bad experience, however, and not only will that affect future purchases, but I’ll talk about it with friends and family.

Volkswagen is a company many people are talking about these days. Volkswagen promised millions of drivers around the world German engineering and what they were actually selling were defeat devices. Fifty years of building one of the world’s most powerful brands gone in the amount of time it takes for a group of people to make the astonishing decision to deceive consumers and regulators.

On a product level, Volkswagen will correct the software issue and begin the process of altering 11 million cars. That’s the easy part. On a brand level, however, the damage will last much longer, and here’s why: this is a colossal failure in corporate social responsibility. First, as much as I’m a fan of their cars, their advertising, and their iconoclastic personality, Volkswagen has never truly connected with me as a company overly concerned with being a good citizen. And that’s okay. I love their products, I love their dedication to design, I feel good driving their cars. That was enough. But in recent years they’ve made the environment a focus of their sustainability efforts. And with a fleet of diesel cars that were considered best in class for low emissions and high performance, they had the perfect marketing advantage. Until it all turned out to be false.

To borrow a headline from one of their most well-known ads, this is truly a lemon for VW. And it was all avoidable. The reality is, corporate social responsibility isn’t a tricky thing to pull off. One of our clients has been running the same program for over 20 years and has positively impacted billions of kids in 80 countries. Other companies like TOMS Shoes based their entire business model on social responsibility. Rarer still, some firms prove their dedication to social responsibility every day by the products they sell, they way they treat employees, and even how the CEO gets paid. I’m talking about Costco.

I’m following the VW story closer than most because CarrotNewYork is in the business of helping companies launch successful CSR campaigns through education. In the months ahead, this blog will take a look at the companies who successfully leverage corporate social responsibility, and explore the ways CSR can help business, empower individuals, and have a positive impact on entire communities. I hope you’ll follow along. 

Do you have an interesting CSR story to share? Email me at

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