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Volvo vs. VW: Brand at the Core

Posted by on October 8th, 2015
Posted in Blog   

Brand is much more than your logo, name, or messages. Brand is at the core of who you are as an organization. It is not just what you say; it is what you do. When done right, brand should influence your day-to-day decision-making and act as a code by which your organization lives.

A great example of this is Volvo.

In 1959 Nils Bohlin, a Volvo engineer, invented the 3-point safety harness, a seat belt that not only saved lives, but was extremely easy to use. Volvo, rather than sitting back and reaping the profits that would come from other automakers leasing the rights to their multi-million dollar invention, did something different. The company created an open patent, enabling every car in the world to be equipped with this incredible life-saving device. By some accounts, more than a million lives have been saved because of Bohlin’s seat belt over the last 50 years.

Why would a company do this? Shouldn’t profit have been the overwhelming motivation?

A company that knows its brand knows that there’s more to be gained over the long run by consistently sticking to its values than one that simply seeks short term gains. Volvo’s brand is built on safety, and by putting the safety of the world ahead of its quarterly balance sheet, the company has forever cemented itself in our minds as the safest car on the road. It’s the key reason people choose to purchase a Volvo.

Compare that to VW.

Since 2009, the company has lied to its consumers and regulators about the emissions of its diesel vehicles. Over 11 million cars are on the road that not only violate state and federal laws, but are programmed with software to intentionally deceive emissions tests. As a result of VW’s blatant violation of emissions standards, the company will have contributed to a global increase in asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, and other respiratory diseases.

Not only has VW betrayed the public trust, they have turned their consumers into collaborators. We choose to align with brands because they are an expression of our personal brand. When I wear my Nikes, I’m expressing my desire to feel like an athletic hero. When I purchase a Harley, I get to feel rebellious. My NPR tote bag expresses my intellectual curiosity.

Consumers who purchased VWs did so because they aspired to decrease their environmental footprint and to find an alignment between their own values and the companies they support. The benefits, then, were both functional as well as emotional. This isn’t just about nuts and bolts and tires and emissions; it is a deceipt that affects the identity of each consumer.

One of the best known advertisements of all time is this ad.


VW captured our hearts and imagination because it used a powerful and surprising element in its advertising: honesty. And these qualities have powered the VW brand ever since: direct, reliable, and honest.

A deceit this widespread, a lie that would have had to have included hundreds of people over the past 6 years, leads one to ask, what does the VW brand now stand for? What is the brand’s promise to its consumers? And does that promise matter if you can’t trust the company to stand by its word?

Branding only works if your actions match your words. You must embody the qualities for which you want to be known, even when it’s difficult to do so.

How does your brand promise affect the decisions your organization makes? Let us know.



Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.

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