Das Cheaters

by Kelley Korbin

First Lance Armstrong, now Volkswagen

The author, circa 1988, in her then boyfriend's classic 1972 VW van.

The author, circa 1988, in her then boyfriend's classic 1972 VW van.

As a marketer and admirer of strong and authentic brands, my faith is being seriously tested.

OK, I never actually loved the Lance brand, but it was strong and those yellow bracelets were brilliant.

We all know how that ended—with even the most fervent believers becoming cynical and losing faith in the entire sport of cycling. And Lance himself? He’s been written out of cycling history, his name erased from record books around the world.

Without some serious brand resuscitation, I fear Volkswagen is steering its way down the same path to notorious oblivion.

I have been a believer in VW since my teens. In the early 80s, all the cool kids drove Beetles, Westfalias and Karmann Ghias with their rusty floor boards and distinctive sewing machine sound.

I learned to drive, illegally, at age 14 with my dad in Mexico on a VW Thing—on a dirt road with no windows or doors and the windshield folded down.

In those days, buying a Volkswagen also bought you entry into an elite, if somewhat alternative, club. There was even a special hand wave that Volkswagen drivers gave other members of the clan when they passed each other on the road. I perfected that wave driving my boyfriend’s perfectly finicky 1972 red Volkswagen van.

I remember an argument with that same boyfriend where he accused me of only being with him for his VW van. (That boyfriend is now my husband. Coincidence? I’ll never tell.)

I’m guessing I’m not the only person of my generation mourning the news that Volkswagen was doping on its emissions tests—a sophisticated ruse that rivals that of Armstrong et al. The only saving grace and glimmer of hope for VW might prove to be the vital difference between the carmaker’s fortunes and Lance Armstrong’s.

Unlike the seven-time Tour de France winning cyclist, Volkswagen copped to the truth as soon as it realized the jig was up. When it became obvious there was something seriously gassy about its diesel emissions, the company admitted full culpability and CEO Martin Winkerton resigned.

It’s a start to what I hope will be a series of brilliant PR moves the carmaker is going to need if it’s going to survive the coming onslaught of lawsuits and falling sales and live to build another iconic vehicle.

As a marketer, I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

For nostalgia’s sake, I hope it’s good.