Volkswagen Looks to New CEO — But Brand’s Fate Is Up To Customers

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Volkswagen 2015 Passat US ad campaign diesel VW

The future leadership of Volkswagen hangs in the balance today as the 20-member board of the troubled and iconic company meets to decide critical issues including who the next CEO will be in the wake of Martin Winterkorn‘s resignation earlier this week and how deep the cuts must go into the ranks of executives held responsible — along with the action plan to win back the trust of shocked customers and government regulators.

As of this writing, Volkswagen AG’s board of directors are still meeting to decide who its next CEO will be, with Porsche CEO Matthias Mueller considered the frontrunner. Meanwhile, other VW executives are hoping they survive the chopping block today, including Volkswagen Group of America president and CEO Michael Horn, who has been criticized for partying with Lenny Kravitz at a Passat launch event in New York on Monday after the so-called dieselgate emissions scandal started making headlines worldwide. Horn released the following apology via Volkswagen US’s Twitter account:

Volkswagen US CEO Michael Horn apology dieselgate Sept. 24 2015

Meanwhile, other top-level action continues as European regulators begin delving into VW’s emissions behaviors and as 27 state attorneys general in the United States develop a potential criminal case against the German automaker. Investors also are grappling with the implications of VW’s monumental deception, bidding its shares up slightly in early trading today after whacking as much as 40 percent off the company’s overall capitalization earlier this week.

But it’s likely that the future of Volkswagen, its brand and products will be decided definitively not at the very top of the auto industry and western governments but rather at the level of individual consumers such as Timmons Roberts, a lifelong VW fan and owner and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who shared his disillusionment.

His love for VWs culminated, he wrote, when six years ago Roberts and his wife “got a 2009 diesel Jetta, a fine piece of German craftsmanship, which had it all: great looks, 42 miles per gallon, and truly zippy performance. After driving underpowered gas sippers, I was pleasantly stunned at the torque that thing could deliver. And all with a clean conscience. Or so we thought.”

But in the wake of  VW’s emissions scandal and the betrayal he felt, Roberts wrote, “My lifetime fascination with these German driving machines may not end, but I will probably never buy another.”

Multiply that sort of sentiment by the 11 million vehicles VW said could be affected around the world by its emissions manipulations, and that about describes the enormous size of the problem that Volkswagen faces: Even if it moves quickly, firmly and transparently to attempt to fix its problems from the top, the decisions made by consumers in America and around the world ultimately will decide the fate of the brand and the company.

Consider the incredible brand equity built up by Volkswagen over the years on the back of the Beetle, “Fahrvergnugen,” and even the Golden Sisters’ recent hilarious performances on behalf of VW’s diesel engines in the US. It could all be gone, and very quickly.

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