About Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess’s use of social media

Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess joined Twitter in December 2020. His first tweet was posted on January 20, 2021. And he tagged Elon Musk in his very first tweet! I wrote about his opening Twitter gambit earlier this year.

Now, in an article in the Financial Times, more details emerge about the strategy behind his increased interest and presence on social media, particularly on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Volkswagen, as a brand, is memorable for all the wrong reasons – Dieselgate. To move the memory away from that mega-scandal, the brand has, no doubt, some fantastic products. But beyond talking about products alone, it needs a constant content plan that can distract people from thinking about scandals and think of making new associations with the brand.

Herbert’s social media strategy seems geared towards this.

Consider this new year post he shared at the beginning of 2021, featuring a Cupra (that belongs to the Volkswagen Group) car – he features as himself first, but eventually is seen dressed as Batman, to go with the signal in the sky at the beginning of the video!

On another note…

Not just Herbert’s personal profile on social media, but even the brand seems to be hitting such targets. For April Fool’s Day this year, Volkswagen made a terrific splash with a name-change gimmick. To mark its dominance and interest in electric vehicles, it announced a week prior to April 1 that it will change the brand name to Voltswagen!

The gimmick was widely mocked because people took it dead seriously. But, ironically, the mark of success for a great April 1 trick is that people take it seriously and get… fooled! From that perspective, I believe Voltswagen was an excellent gimmick in the direction set by Diess.

Back to Herbert Diess.

Besides the need for a slightly provocative social media presence, the FT article also mentions that the CEO chairs a weekly social media planning meeting that lasts for more than 2 hours! And that he, along with the team, looks keenly on the metrics/performance of earlier posts and plan for future ‘viral’ (or provocative) content.

The fact that he doesn’t assume that social content, when posted from his own handles, is impulsive or unimportant enough not to be discussed seriously with a team is great learning for most other CXOs who use/want to use social media for both personal and corporate branding.

Herbert realizes that his ‘presence’ on social media is as important—if not even more important—as an interview with the Financial Times, or The Wall Street Journal. The output in both activities is that his word gets out to the whole world.

But there is a crucial difference where the latter becomes more important: with a media interview, the journalist/editor gets to frame Herbert’s words and build a perspective from the publication’s neutral point of view. However, with his own presence, he gets to shape both the articulation and framing, thereby offering the brand’s perspective and let it shape public perception too. The more consistently he (and Volkswagen) do this, the more impactful the messages and stories they share with the end audience.

The FT article also makes a sweeping blunder in trying to assess whether Herbert’s increased, planned presence on social media is helping – it looks only at share price as an indicator, and adds for context that Daimler’s CEO is not on Twitter (and is reticent) but that the brand’s stock has tripled. This is both myopic and flawed.

Share price is not, and need not be the only way to assess whether a CXO’s planned presence on social media is working. There could be many angles to consider the success metrics, including the ability to attract better talent, better overall brand perception (that may, in the medium-to-long run, improve sales, or the brand’s preference in terms of service, choice of spare parts; increase interest/preference/consideration among business partners (like dealers), among others.

In fact, the FT article quotes Daimler boss as saying that his LinkedIn-only presence helps in increasing Daimler’s ability to attract better people into the company!

The article also lists the need to attract attention from US fund managers as an objective. And because they are more keenly looking at Volkswagen’s younger competitors, this becomes all the more imperative. The fact that Herbert shares content on both languages (German and English) points to this objective (besides doing quarterly media calls also in English – a recent update).

The point about CXO presence on social media is that it is not a one-off game of getting one/few viral hits. It’s a marathon, not a 100 meters dash. It requires sustained effort, relentlessly, week after week. And more brains the better, in terms of conceiving what to say and more importantly how to say it. Some content may work wonderfully, from an outtakes point of view (vanity metrics on the platforms), and most content may not show visible outtakes at all. But together, they are a window to the world, of the mind and life of the CXO. It is a carefully curated window-view, no doubt, but that helps shape perceptions carefully.

To reduce the impact of this curated, ongoing effort to just share price is like reducing the impact of a life lived to just monetary success alone. There’s a whole world beyond monetary metrics in terms of ‘success’ and it clearly looks like Herbert has grasped this nuance adequately.

Regardless of specific pieces of content from him seeming interesting or not-so-interesting, the fact that he plans for content with his team and takes the performance of the content (whatever be the metrics) seriously is a good lesson for other CXOs testing the waters on social media through their own handles.

Herbert seems to have realized that getting an audience online is easy – his designation is enough. But only working harder—and in a planned manner towards specific objectives—on his line of thoughts and articulation would get his audiences to stay.

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