It was an April Fool joke that went wrong. In an embarrassing excuse, Volkswagen was forced to confirm in late March that its change from the U.S. to “Voltswagen” to embrace an all-electric future was a stunt.
However, the wrong announcement, which prompted a Securities and Exchange Commission survey after coinciding with a growth in the group’s US shares, was in line with a social media strategy implemented at the German headquarters of and carmaker.
Last summer, VW chief executive Herbert Diess told staff he wanted to be more vocal online. He felt that the group, which invests more than 35 billion euros in electricity technology, needed to fight back attention from Elon Musk, according to people close to senior management.
“Maybe we need a big boom,” is how one person familiar with the strategy described the approach, which implied that Diess would take to LinkedIn and then Twitter with increasingly provocative posts.
Diess is also active on China’s Weibo, where she’s hot on the heels of Tesla’s founder – who has used social media for years to promote himself and his company – in terms of followers.
VW launched its first dedicated electric vehicle, the ID.3, last year, and sold nearly 232,000 battery-powered vehicles by 2020, becoming Europe’s largest electric vehicle company in the process. By the end of the decade, it wants 70 percent of its sales in Europe to be without emissions.
Despite such ambitions, the German company is worth less than a third of Tesla, which is building a factory just 150 kilometers from the VW Group base in Wolfsburg.
In an unusual move for Germany’s firm business class, Diess embarked on a series of stunts to make VW stand out.
The Bavarian wore a Batman mask while showing off one of the group’s cars in a LinkedIn post, posed for a selfie with Musk when he visited VW to test his ID.3, and then joined Twitter at the earlier this year, he jokingly joked about Tesla. executive, who had tried to recruit Diess when he was BMW manager.
The VW chief has also sparred with climate and political activists online, for the best way to achieve carbon-neutral transportation.
The importance of this strategy is underscored by a weekly social media planning meeting, which is chaired by Diess and can last two hours, one person said. Analyzes of previous publications are analyzed and potential “viral content” for the coming days is discussed.
Some say the tactic helped bring recognition to VW.
“Diess took some attention, though [Daimler boss Ola] Kallenius and [BMW’s Oliver] Zipse doesn’t come out here, ”said Michael Muders, portfolio manager at Union Investment, a former VW shareholder.
“You need a lot of money to manage the transition,” he added. “That’s part of the game plan.”
The key to this plan is the ability to attract the attention of fund managers in the United States, who are much more focused on VW’s younger competitors. In pursuit of this goal, VW has recently begun making its quarterly press releases in English.
“After Dieselgate there was no interest from American investors,” said a person close to VW’s executive board. More than half of Diess’s Twitter followers are from the United States, they add.
With GM and Ford making headlines for calling dates when they will stop selling combustion engine cars, VW is trying to point out that it has an advantage over its traditional competitors, in the form of dedicated electric platforms, one of which is licensed. to Ford.
This technology “gives VW a head start on the peers,” said Daniel Schwarz, Stifel’s analyst. “Now we have the European Green Deal and VW’s strategy looks even more promising.”
Along with other events, such as a “Power Day” focused on battery technology designed to create an online buzz, VW’s online offensive coincided with a strong growth in the manufacturer’s stock.
For a long time this spring, the beetle manufacturer has once again carried the crown of Germany’s most precious public company, despite a significant change in its already ambitious electricity plans, and has almost regained the ground lost by the diesel emissions scandal in 2015.
Critically, though, it’s not clear how much Diess’s tweets are helping.
Although VW shares have more than doubled since the 10-year coup in March last year, Daimler’s stock has tripled over the same period, despite its reserved Swedish CEO remaining off Twitter.
“I use LinkedIn because we’ve discovered that this is a great tool for attracting talent to our company,” Kallenius told the Financial Times, “and I’m excited for now.»
If the demonstration of action – partly stimulated by a car demand boom – is to continue, German producers will probably have to do more than just display hashtags.
“The easy money in the market has probably been made,” Union’s Muders said. “The question is what are the margins in the activity of electric vehicles. This will be the focus of the market.”