Analysis: Volkswagen's April Fool's stunt gone awry: How brands can rein it in before losing control

Volkswagen landed itself in a sticky situation this week after its April Fool's stunt went awry. The spoof first came about when the brand intentionally published a press release draft on 29 March about its US division being rebranded to "Voltswagen of America". The release was later removed and the next day, on 30 March, Volkswagen published a full press release quoting president and CEO of the US division Scott Keogh. He said that while it might be swapping out the "K" for a "T", the automotive brand is not changing its brand's commitment to make the "best-in-class vehicles" for consumers worldwide.

What had intended to be an April Fool's joke eventually spun out of control. News of the rebranding was reported by major news outlets including Reuters and CNBC, stating that the move signified Volkswagen's commitment to focus on electric vehicles. The stunt also impacted Volkswagen's stocks on the Frankfurt stock exchange, causing it to rise 4.7% higher. This eventually resulted in a spokesperson from Germany clarifying that the rebranding should not be taken seriously. 

In the end, Volkswagen US decided to come clean with the joke and explained that it was meant to be a marketing stunt to raise awareness about its new all-electric ID.4 SUV, and that it was done in the spirit of April Fool's. The press releases were also removed from the Volkswagen US website.

Given the chatter surrounding electric vehicles and green energy in recent years, it is no surprise that Volkswagen wanted to tap on this hype to drum up interest in its new car. While it is common for brands to think of cheeky activations during April Fool's to tickle consumers, Volkswagen's prank was not as straightforward. 

Most April Fool’s jokes by brands tend to be frivolous, with no tangible marketing benefits, Farrokh Madon, chief creative officer of Pirate, said. He added that the jokes are usually there for the sake of getting the brand in the public’s face with a slight laugh. In this case, Volkswagen had a very solid objective and it also seemed like a good opportunity for the automotive brand to draw attention to its intent on going electric, due to the buzz around electric vehicles. 

"The only downside is that this intent is trivialised when you ultimately tell people it is a joke. So, should the public drive away feeling that Volkswagen only jokes about going electric but in reality are not serious about it? It is open to misinterpretation. And that cannot be good for any marketing activity," Madon said. He added that Volkswagen could have done better in terms of timing.

If you wanted it to be an April Fool’s joke, do it on 1 April. And not days ahead.

Also, brands should stick with the prank once it is in motion. Madon explained that going in reverse gear after a day or two just shows that the company didn’t think it through.

Volkswagen came in third in Brand Finance's automotive industry 2021 ranking with a brand value of US$47.02 million. As the third most valuable automotive brand, any talk or hints of a rebrand will definitely cause a concerning furore, Mawarni Adam, founder and CEO of marqetr and marketing industry veteran, said. "Why would Volkswagen do that? Why ruin a good thing?" she added. According to her, the sequence of events for the April Fool's joke and rather "serious" responses that followed added fuel to the fire. Agreeing with Madon, Mawarni said timing, tone and tact matters, which missed the mark in Volkswagen's prank.

"In the comedy world, there are those few golden seconds to deliver a quick-witted comeback or a punchline, if you miss that and drag it out for minutes or hours or days, then the joke will fall flat, gets lost in translation, it will be too late. Damage done," she explained.

While it is great for brands to have some tongue-in-cheek moments and loosen up slightly for April Fool's Day, Mawarni is of the view that this should not be at the expense of the brand equity. Instead, she advises brands to find another subject matter that has less impact and consequences.

Similarly, Ashvin Anamalai, chief strategist at Be Strategic, also said that timing and delivery is almost as important as the subject itself. And more important, knowing where the brand stands in the eyes of consumers. "Whilst the intention and ideation can be clever, the planning and execution definitely has to reflect the final outcome," he added.

That said, he acknowledge that it is no secret that having a good product is no longer enough to win consumers. Instead, consumers nowadays want quality that aligns with their personal beliefs as well as a relatable brand. "What Volkswagen attempted was no different to what we do as marketers on a daily basis; getting our brand name out there," he said.

How brands can approach April Fool's in a cheeky manner without copping flak

Statistics from Meltwater between 29 March to 1 April showed that news of Volkswagen's rebranding had about 38.3k online mentions, a 1,277,467% jump compared to the previous period. Majority of it (23.7k) originated from Twitter followed by news sites (7.21k), blogs (3.23k), Facebook (1.49k), forums (1.33k) and Reddit (1.24k). The online mentions mainly came from the US (9.8k), followed by Mexico (2.5k) and Germany (1.2k).

Among the list of top keywords included "name", "fake news release", "electric vehicles commitment", "government emission", and "german automaker". Top entities included "Volkswagen", "German", "April Fool", USA", and "Voltswagen of America". Meanwhile, the top hashtags were #voltswagen, #id4, and #volkswagen. Despite the online furore, Meltwater's statistics showed that 79% of the online sentiment was neutral while 15% was negative.

To prevent brands from landing in hot soup on April Fool's, Ogilvy Malaysia's ECD Kurt Novack said companies should stay away from anything that touches on product integrity or feels forced on the brand’s personality, especially after the company has been through a major crisis. Also, not all brands can get away with it. "For instance, Burger King might be able to get away with a lot more but that is only because of its personality, we trust them and their product. Still, context is king," Novack explained. 

It is also important to think through the pros and cons of doing a "joke" on the day, Pirate's Madon said. Different people have different points of view, and it is very important to consider these before the work goes out.

"So, it is always good to share ideas like these internally, in the ad agency and client’s office, with a mix of lateral and literal people. This helps one arrive at a balanced analysis of what could go wrong with an idea that seems right in so many ways," he added.

The flurry of online activity surrounding April Fool's can also cause legitimate announcements to either be left out or misinterpreted. In such cases, acting normal and carrying on like it is business as usual would be the best move for brands, Madon said. 

"Not all brands do April Fool's jokes and brands cannot launch a legitimate product during that period and flag that it is not an April Fool's joke. That would only make more people think it is actually a joke. I think the best way is to launch like it is a normal launch," he said.

Similarly, marqetr's Mawarni also advised brands not to overthink it and proceed with a launch because it is just the first day of another month. To be safe, brands can also use the hashtag #NotAnAprilFoolsJoke. Otherwise, brands should avoid the date altogether if they are concerned about getting embroiled in an April Fool's controversy.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE's Content 360 Week is back from 6 to 8 April this year! Super charge your content production, distribution and monetisation strategies by learning from brands such as NBA Asia, P&G, Malaysia Airlines, and Marriott International, among others. Sign up today!