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It’s not often that a business story about the car industry sweeps the headlines, but Volkswagen Group has captured this dubious honor in light of its ongoing emissions-testing scandal: The chief executive has resigned, the U.S. attorney’s office is pursuing a federal probe, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company wants to turn the story into a movie.

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In light of the scandal, even the value of used Volkswagens has dropped by about 16%. The German-based company will likely need a major rebranding campaign to rebuild public trust.

Volkswagen is one of the world’s most recognizable car manufacturers. In addition to producing cars under its own name, it owns brands such as Lamborghini, Audi, Porsche, and even Ducati motorcycles. Today, these brands conjure up images of glamour and wealth, perhaps appropriate for a company embroiled in a high-profile scandal, but this was not the case in 1968, when researchers Edward L. Grubb and Gregg Hupp studied the associations “sensible” people had with the Volkswagen brand.

Grubb and Hupp wanted to test the theory that consumers choose brands with an “image” that aligns with how they perceive themselves. The researchers found that a then-recent survey suggested that the most popular cars used by students at the University of Nebraska campus were Pontiac GTOs and the Volkswagen 1200-1300 series, more commonly known as the Volkswagen Beetle. The researchers compiled 98 descriptive words, drawn from the advertising plans of both brands, and asked students to indicate which words described Pontiac drivers and which described Volkswagen drivers. This whittling-down process led to the selection of 16 words most closely associated with the brands, eight for each one. Volkswagen owners, for example, were “creative, individualistic, thrifty, and sensible,” while Pontiac owners were “status-conscious, fashionable, sporty, and pleasure-seeking.”

Next, each participant took a slew of questionnaires that measured three things: how they perceived themselves, how they perceived other people who owned the same car model, and how they perceived other people who owned the other brand. The results generally supported the original theory: Volkswagen owners did see themselves as having the traits associated with Volkswagens, and same with Pontiacs. However, while Volkswagen owners rated themselves lower on core “Pontiac” traits, Pontiac owners rated themselves rather favorably on most Volkswagen traits—just to a lesser degree than actual owners. This suggested that Pontiac owners tended to think they’re creative and sensible, whereas Volkswagen owners believed to a much stronger extent that they themselves were thrifty.

Drivers of both cars also thought they had more in common, personality-wise, with others who had chosen the same brand. For example, Pontiac owners perceived other Pontiac owners as more flashy, adventurous and, hilariously, “interested in the other sex.” Interestingly,  though, in one analysis, Pontiac owners thought that other Pontiac owners were more flashy than they themselves were.


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Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Feb., 1968), pp. 58-63
American Marketing Association