In March 2013 Volkswagen launched its Think Blue campaign, a beautifully designed and wonderfully crafted corporate story about Volkswagen’s commitment to be the most ecologically sustainable car manufacturer in the world by 2018. At the same time (I like to imagine in another, darker, smoke-filled boardroom down the hall), Volkswagen employees were signing off on fitting millions of diesel vehicles with defeat devices – software designed to kick in during emissions testing to ensure Volkswagen’s dirty cars passed.
It is the quintessential case of a business telling a story about itself but failing to live it and what really burns us is that we were duped. Stories engage us. They are memorable and, most importantly, they influence our behaviour. Whether we realize it or not, stories are what we draw on to help us make decisions and take action, like buying a car. The companies who invest in storytelling, and in getting good at it, have the power to not just win consumers. They win adoring fans.
Volkswagen’s dupe is horrible when put in this light. Their adoring fans have opened the boardroom blinds and found snakes slithering under the table. Surely they must be correct to “tear down” Volkswagen, declare them “criminal!”, and sentence them to “corporate ruin.”
And yet I can’t help but think of all the corporate web pages dedicated to lofty jargon-filled promises of vision and purpose and noble values, and I realize Volkswagen is certainly not alone.
How many companies type ‘innovation’ onto the web page and at the same time (in their other, darker, smoke-filled boardroom down the hall), muzzle ideas with fear of trying something new? There are surely many who declare their businesses to be ‘great places to work’ while piling the work and pressure onto employees who have to be there at six in the morning and can’t get out the door before seven at night. In my own experience, how many times have I forgotten to ask questions and listen, instead bombarding an unwitting listener with a full-on, no-time-for-pausing, information dump?
Volkswagen has set aside billions of dollars for the fall-out of their scandal. They know they will have to pay and they should. But before we all start feeling too self-righteous, it is probably as good a time as any to open the blinds, clear out the smoke and see what shows up in our boardrooms down the hall.