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Brands on the Edge – Volkswagen and The Muppets

October 27, 2015

Two deeply cherished brands find themselves in serious trouble – in different ways and for different reasons. Yet while the stories have obvious differences, both Volkswagen and The Muppets are guilty of letting loyalists down in a big way.

‘Dieselgate,’ as it has come to be known, will have a major financial impact on the company – once the fines and penalties are calculated by relevant regulatory agencies, VW will be out billions of dollars. What has been less widely covered is the possible perceptual impact on a brand that has made major gains worldwide in recent years – especially when its sister brand Audi is included.

The company’s ability to recover will have a lot to do with how much this scandal impacts the brand, not just the balance sheet. Volkswagen has occupied a special place in the pantheon of automotive brands – rare in its ability to project both quality and humanity. Among the highly regarded exemplars of German engineering, VW has long stood out for its humor, authenticity, and value perception.

Does Dieselgate represent corporate malfeasance or outright brand betrayal? Does the increasing consumer emphasis on environmental sustainability mean VW will pay a high perceptual price? This wasn’t just negligence, but dishonesty – does that reflect a rogue few or a fundamentally fraudulent way of doing business?

The difference between ‘what a bunch of jerks’ and ‘I will never buy another Volkswagen after this’ is what will most affect VW’s resiliency. And that is much more of a branding than financial question.

Which brings us to another brand on the edge – The Muppets. While we are accustomed to seeing long-term brand franchises change with the times, the jarringly ‘edgy’ way in which ABC conceived the latest Muppets TV launch is a significant departure for the brand.

The Muppets was an early and enduring example of an entertainment property that could simultaneously appeal to children and adults – kids loved the catchy songs and cuddly characters, while adults enjoyed the gently subversive sense of humor.

While recent movies have contemporized the characters in subtle ways, the ABC relaunch of The Muppet Show has been altogether different. This new show is a ‘mockumentary’ set behind the scenes at Miss Piggy’s late night talk show. Now, the characters are bitter, overly real, and upsetting – with overt references to sexuality, substance abuse, politics, and well beyond.

The new series premiered less than a month ago. Initially, and no doubt trading on the goodwill of a beloved past, the ratings were good. After one look at the new show, the ratings took a steep nosedive and have decreased ever since – with rumors of possible cancellation. It is clearly not kid-friendly, and it seems adults prefer to get their snark and angst elsewhere.

So what was Disney/ABC thinking? It’s hard to say whether or not this is the result of a sincerely held belief that The Muppets were the right creative vehicle for adult topics, a hope among the creators that a contemporary Muppets would breathe new relevancy into the property, or a cash grab by a desperate network trading on a popular name with a low cost show concept.

If the reviews are any indication, this experiment will end soon. The question is whether or not Muppet fans – who yearn for the more wholesome treatment of these characters – are willing to un-see this travesty and continue to invest entertainment and consumer product dollars in this franchise and its stars. Simply put, will the brand withstand this travesty or have The Muppets been spoiled forever?

Ultimately, these two situations have different dimensions – but the common denominator is a level of brand betrayal that puts the future of each into question.

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