We’re lying to ourselves: How our own lazy thinking will save VW

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Heuristics can be mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision.

We don’t like making tough decisions. If we can, we’ll take shortcuts. Save time. Reduce effort. We’ll do almost anything for an easier life.

Ingrained behaviours make life easier. But sometimes, these shortcuts prevent us from thinking rationally. They trick us. And sometimes, it’s really hard to stop, take stock and think.

So, think with me a moment: think of a German national trait.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind?

It’s highly likely that it was this—“Efficiency.”

That’s decades of careful communication building a perception. A reputation. A brand. A positioning. You could argue that no other country owns the ‘efficient’ positioning as well as Germany does.

Now, think about German engineers.

Your mind is probably saying — “German engineering – that’s a good thing. It’s solid. Dependable. In some way ‘better’ than other engineering.”

So German engineers are pretty awesome. RightErm… wait a second. Didn’t they spectacularly fail to solve an efficiency problem recently? And didn’t they cheat to get around that problem? And hasn’t VW done this before (1974 come on down…)?

German engineering isn’t empirically better or worse than the equivalent Japanese, British or American engineering.

But a cursory analysis of twitter sentiment around the terms “German Engineering,” “German Efficiency,” or even “VW” illustrates that eight short months after the scandal broke, human beings have reverted to the simplest, shortest, easiest path. Nearly 80% of tweets sent in the last week on these terms were positive. Glowing even. Yes — it’s an imperfect measurement. Yes — it’s a small sample. But it’s also a platform that should lend itself to unfiltered (and often uncritical) thinking.

The years of investment by VW, Audi, Porsche, BMW, Mercedes (and Siemens, Liebherr, Bosch and more…) in the “German Engineering” positioning has created a series of heuristics in the minds of consumers. German Engineering leads to progress (Vorsprung durch Technik). German Engineering is more solid (It sounds just like a Golf). German Engineering is better (That’s the power of German Engineering).

These heuristics are a bulwark for VW. An extremely powerful, decades old learned behaviour that makes it highly likely that, following a hard (and expensive) correction, the VW brand will ride out the current crisis far more comfortably than many commentators expect. Human beings are just not willing to think rationally for long enough for it to be otherwise.

A long term investment in simple, coherent brand positioning is the most powerful defence against short term reputational crisis. No amount of PR or advertising can match the deep, embedded power of a simple brand promise managed over decades.

Consider another case.

Over the past 36 years, tourism has become Malaysia’s most successful services sector. Following many years of investment, particularly in building reputation in the Chinese and Indonesian markets, Malaysia was on track to welcome almost 28 million tourists from across the world in 2014.

Then, tragically, Malaysia Airlines lost both MH17 (missile strike over Ukraine) and MH370 (unknown cause of loss). Prior to 2014, the airline had one of the world’s best safety records — just two fatal accidents in 68 years of operation.

In the aftermath of these twin tragedies, analysts expected a drop in tourist arrivals and a minimum loss of $1.3 billion in tourism revenue. Whilst 2014 figures were strong, initial statistics for 2015 show a dip in revenues and tourist numbers across the board.

The airline tragedies have created a temporary and unfair heuristic in the minds of tourists from Colorado to China. That heuristic is —Malaysia Airlines is unsafe. Therefore Malaysia is unsafe. That idea can only exist because no other Malaysia positioning has been successfully seeded in the minds of consumers.

Whereas in the VW case investment in the “German Engineering” positioning has remained constant over many years, the constant chopping and changing of messaging by Tourism Malaysia over the last 20 years has diluted brand Malaysia, creating an uncertain and cloudy perception of the country. Faced with the hard fact of twin air accidents, this lack of a simple, clear brand promise becomes more damaging.

In the west, the negative ‘unsafe’ heuristic undermines decades of investment in the Tourism Malaysia positioning — which has been exacerbated by the bizarre decision of the government to cut investment in the tourism industry by 25% year on year. By reducing investment in a simple promise for brand Malaysia, the country risks seriously damaging both its tourism revenues and its wider economy, at a time when the country is in need of an economic fillip.

The difference between the two cases can be summarised thus — In the west, the long term investment by a multitiude of German brands in the German Engineering position should act as a bulwark for VW during a reputational crisis (despite the association being indirect). Malaysia, with its less well defined brand promise, struggles to support Malaysia Airlines in a similarly challenging crisis.

What does this mean for brand Britain?

Will brand Britain be strong enough to support Mini, British Airways, Barclays and others through the choppy waters post referendum (whatever the result)? Or is the referendum guaranteed to shoot British businesses in the foot, whichever way we vote? The lessons of VW and Malaysia Airlines would suggest that, whatever happens, there will be significant short term pain. How long will it last? The answer will lie in the minds of those who buy British. And the heuristics brand Britain has seeded there…

Geraint Jones is business development director at Siegel+Gale. Follow him on Twitter: @gvlj

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