In a recent episode of This American Life (569: “Put a Bow on It”), radio journalist Zoe Chace addressed a tough question: “What could VW possibly say right now to make us trust them again?”
The first person she turns to in her quest to solve this dilemma is someone who should know: Brad Haley. He is the guy who brought Jack in the Box back from the edge after their food caused four children to die from E. coli. (Tough job, right?)
The first thing he told her? Ads can only do so much.
Rick Sitting, who owns the ad agency Secret Weapon Marketing, and who came up with the Energizer bunny, agrees. “They’re screwed because they have abused their customers’ trust,” says Sitting. “And it takes a brand decades to win people over. There’s no empathy out there for them.”
Of course, Sitting and other brilliant advertising minds do go on to provide their suggestions for a VW ad—you will have to listen to the episode to catch those—but the message from these ad creatives runs in line with the oft-spoken words of Warren Buffett: it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.
After all, your brand is not what you say it is: it is everything everyone else is saying it is. At best, you can only guide and influence your brand. Days before the news broke about VW, VW continued running its ads about its “clean diesels,” which it deleted almost immediately after things went public. Clearly, what it said its brand was and what its brand actually was were two very different things.
But those are all things you have probably heard before. You know a brand takes years to hone and only minutes to destroy. You know it is important to be genuine. And I hope you know that it is probably best to avoid knowingly lying to customers. But one skill that is not often talked about? Knowing when to shut the hell up.
There is almost nothing VW could say right now to change customers’ minds. No one believes anything they say, anyways. What they can and should do instead is just shut up.
It takes guts to go silent. To tee yourself up to take the heat from the media and from customers and from everyone else. It is hard to fight the desire to fight back. It is hard to just sit there and take it. But if you ever find yourself in the midst of a scandal this large, shutting up may just be the best thing you can do.
When you are being quiet, you are not making customers more angry or confusing them or doing anything else. You are simply letting yourself take it. Letting the dust settle. And sometimes, that is better than trying to force your customers’ hands.
After the dust has settled and the fire has gone out—after people have calmed down and are not so upset—then that is when you start to rebuild. That is when you slowly start to rebuild that reputation you used to have. (Interesting note regarding actions vs. words: Volkswagen just hired a Daimler executive to lead a new post devoted to integrity and legal affairs.)
Once you have eroded customers’ trust, there is no turning back. It is hard—if not impossible—to put yourself back in the situation you used to be in. While it is comforting to think that there are immediate steps you can take to turn the perception ship right back around, sometimes, there just is nothing you can do. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is shut up.
Image credit: CC by Tobi Firestone