VW must win back lost trust

Financial traders monitoring data on computer screens at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, on Friday. Since Volkwagen's deception came to light, its stocks have plunged.
Financial traders monitoring data on computer screens at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, on Friday. Since Volkwagen's deception came to light, its stocks have plunged.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

The Volkswagen (VW) crisis, triggered by misleading emissions measurements, has reinforced the idea that truthfulness and simplicity are pillars of international marketing and integral to the public face of a business.

The (formerly) largest car global manufacturer in terms of sales has been accused of fitting defeat devices into its diesel cars in the United States that can discern when the vehicle is undergoing emissions testing and turn on full emissions control for that duration.

Once the testing is over, however, the emission controls are switched off and allow the cars to emit between 10 and 40 times the regulation standard of nitrogen oxide.

Since this deception has come to light, VW's stocks have crashed, with shares falling 38 per cent in two days. This initial loss to investors and the brand alike showcases the importance of truthfulness in business operations.

Businesses are constrained by the nations and societies in which they operate. Their standards of conduct should ensure their business activities are beneficial to the people and society. Companies that are seen to violate such expectations will see their trustworthiness diminished. Reduced trust results in tangible losses for the company in terms of fines and costs of recall, and also causes the public to censure the company via strongly diminished sales. In order to regain the trust of the consumers, VW must engage with both short and long term measures.

Already, VW has taken important steps to punish those responsible (either directly or via neglect) for the violation of the emission standards and the disappointment of the public's trust. Within five days, chief executive Martin Winterkorn has resigned, although he denies having any knowledge of the wrongdoing. Additional heads will roll, with lay-offs signalling to the public that the company expects adherence to high standards of behaviour, and is not lenient on those that break the social contract.

VW has also set aside 6.5 billion euros (S$10.4 billion) to cover the costs of recalling the cars with the defeat device, as well as any other damages. Together with future direct and indirect costs, this step curtails the company's profits for years to come.

Yet it goes a long way in indicating that VW is ready to accept responsibility and do what it must in reparation of the betrayal of the trust which customers and governments had placed in the company.

Public trust is an important determinant of a society's willingness to allow international firms to do business in their nations. VW will have to rebuild this broken trust, and reinforce the values of truthfulness and simplicity in its workings.

No longer will VW consumers allow the company's real activities to be shrouded in complexity, or permit the lines of truthfulness to be blurred. For VW, standards will be scrutinised more and enforced more sharply. Its ways of doing business must become more transparent and understandable by the public.

For a company that is at the heart of Germany's manufacturing and export economy, and thought to reflect the social responsibility and consciousness of its home country, this active misleading of regulations and claims is a shock for supporters, customers and fellow firms.

VW will have to prove itself anew as an honest partner, an uphill task considering the magnitude of the deception and the corresponding stain on the car manufacturer's reputation which has "People's Car" as its name.

•The writer teaches international business and marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2015, with the headline 'VW must win back lost trust'. Subscribe