Happy April Fools’ Day! We live in a branded hellscape of misinformation and lies! Beware the social feeds today, dear reader. Today is the day that brands replace the shackles of commerce in favor of jokes, with usually indifferent—but sometimes worse!—results. Like that time when Google dropped minions in everyone’s Gmail, or when McDonald’s introduced shake-flavored dipping sauces, or Hasbro changed Mr. Potato Head into Mr. Avo Head.
After a year off from this type of marketing hijinks (the one pandemic silver lining?), this year Volkswagen kicked things off earlier than expected.
Let’s just walk through the events of this week, because it really is worth looking at in its entirety. On Monday, the German carmaker posted a press release that Volkswagen Group of America was “unveiling the official change of its U.S. brand name from Volkswagen of America to Voltswagen of America” to lean into its aggressive electric vehicle production plans. But that release was incomplete, and appeared to be dated April 29, leading many to speculate that it was a mistake, and likely some premature flackulation of a silly April Fools’ Day joke.
But then on Tuesday, the company dug in and issued a full, properly dated, official release on its social channels, seeming to confirm that yes, after 66 years, VW in America will now stand for Voltswagen. At that point, it seemed to be a real thing. Or was it?
We know, 66 is an unusual age to change your name, but we’ve always been young at heart. Introducing Voltswagen. Similar to Volkswagen, but with a renewed focus on electric driving. Starting with our all-new, all-electric SUV the ID.4 – available today. #Voltswagen #ID4 pic.twitter.com/pKQKlZDCQ7
— Volkswagen (@VW) March 30, 2021
Typically when leading up to a significant product announcement or big corporate rebrand, companies pitch media to cover it, making executives available to wax poetic on why this is the greatest thing ever. But VW didn’t do any of that. While its global CMO posted the VW of America press release to LinkedIn along with the message, “We fully support it. Electric isn’t just the future, it’s the right now. Please share to everyone!” in a video interview with AdAge, VW’s American VP of marketing, Kimberley Gardiner—whom you might think would be briefed on something like a name change of the brand she’s responsible for promoting in her country—didn’t exactly give it a ringing endorsement. Unless exasperated eye-rolling counts.
Still, right there in USA Today, an anonymous company source explicitly said that VW wasn’t hacked, the announcement was not a joke, or a marketing ploy, and the plan was for the change to be permanent. Then after much speculation, another (though maybe the same?) unnamed company source told CNBC that yes, this was, in fact, all part of an elaborate April Fools’ Day joke to raise awareness about the company’s all-electric ID.4 model. It just was released earlier than expected by mistake. Maybe the ID.4 should be renamed the FFS.4.
“Elaborate” April Fools’ pranks are something that brands have been doing for years, presumably to boost morale among mid-level marketing managers and the clinically bored. With very few exceptions, most of these are terrible, confusing, and, more recently, genuinely out of step with an era drenched in very serious misinformation issues. So of course, VW then came out on Wednesday with an aw-shucks self-congratulatory, all-press-is-good-press message.
What began as an April Fool’s effort got the whole world buzzing. Turns out people are as passionate about our heritage as they are about our electric future. So whether it’s Voltswagen or Volkswagen, people talking about electric driving and our ID.4 can only be a good thing. pic.twitter.com/Rzx8mJgxkT
— Volkswagen (@VW) March 31, 2021
As a joke, the only thing funny about this is, frankly, the sheer level of befuddled confusion and corporate hubris surrounding it.
The Edgelord Economy
Here’s the thing: Changing an iconic brand name to reflect a product innovation does smack of thirsty trend-chasing of gargantuan proportions. But in 2021’s business climate, it’s also entirely plausible. We live in an era when hype and trends aren’t just about PR, but in the Elon Musk Industrial Complex, they’re also about companies always and continually making bold moves and bolder statements.
All hail the corporate edgelord! Musk, who runs VW competitor Tesla, filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission just over two weeks ago notifying it and investors that he was no longer Tesla CEO but its Technoking. (Now that is committing to the joke.) As Bloomberg’s Christoph Rauwald pointed out, VW CEO Herbert Diess has seemingly taken a page out of the Tesla Technoking’s script for employing more of a hands-on role in getting VW’s message out on social media and staging splashy events big on ambition. Perhaps not coincidentally, the company’s stock is up 70% this year.
As a legacy carmaker, Volkswagen looks around amid its very real achievements in EV tech and product development only to have tweet-hyped upstarts steal the spotlight. In the fourth quarter of 2020, VW sold 191,000 EVs compared with Tesla’s 183,000, and yet their market caps aren’t even close—$141 billion for VW versus $641 billion for Tesla. Hell, even hill-rolling alleged scam Nikola saw its valuation rise to $30 billion last year.
It’s in this topsy-turvy world where an absurd name change starts to seem smart. Lean into the madness! What’s so important about this name anyway? People either think Hitler or emissions scandal, right? If car design, reliability, range, and everything else that should matter about electric vehicles doesn’t matter, maybe this actually all makes sense.
Okay, okay, let’s all breeeeeaaaath. We also live in a time when, increasingly, people are looking for brands that reflect admirable values: trust, dependability, sustainability, maybe even responsibility. Volkswagen has just recently emerged from under the cloud of that emissions scandal, slowly cobbling back the brand goodwill painstakingly built over decades, from “Think Small” to the Darth Vader kid.
A brand’s response to an April Fools’ gag mistakenly dropped early should be to cleverly admit it, have fun with getting caught, and move on. Perhaps that’s just too old-fashioned. Instead, VW treated consumers, the media, and by the looks of it, its own head of U.S. marketing, like a bunch of rubes.
The absurdity of living in a world in which business realities could believably force an iconic brand to make such a frivolous name change is bad enough. Telling a joke that no one gets, then telling us all it’s not a joke, but then it is, is just plain foolish.