There has to be enough material by now for someone to write a book that would be titled The Joke’s On You: Cautionary Tales Of Stunt Marketing. Most of the examples cited in it would probably involve companies trying — sometimes desperately — to get a laugh on April Fool’s Day. Volkswagen may have just earned itself an entire chapter.
As reported on Bloomberg and elsewhere, a mock-press release and posts on social media that the company was rebranding itself as “Voltswagen” were not serious. The whole thing actually started a few days prior to April Fool’s Day, which may have led more people to believe it at first.
Though it has since been taken down, The Verge quoted details from the press release, including a quote from Volkswagen of America CEO Scott Keogh about how “Voltswagen” was intended to signal the carmaker’s move into the future of electric vehicles:
“We have said, from the beginning of our shift to an electric future, that we will build EVs for the millions, not just millionaires,” Keogh was quoted as saying. “This name change signifies a nod to our past as the peoples’ car and our firm belief that our future is in being the peoples’ electric car.”
The whole thing had a veneer of credibility, given there were details about how the Voltswagen branding would be made available at “all customer touchpoints” and specifics about the colour schemes that would be associated with particular vehicle categories.
Whether or not you find it funny (I actually did), Volkswagen is one of many brands who have tried to pull the wool over their customer’s eyes. Tinder once “launched” an application to supposedly verify the height people listed in their dating profiles. Durex touted a new line of fish skin flavoured condoms. Travelodge introduced a “bedshare” service to curb the loneliness of guests. That was all just in 2019.
Beyond the attempt to grab attention, you could argue that these kinds of stunts are a variable aspect of customer experience design. Humour is a way of humanizing a brand — when it works, it shows that the brand shares its customer’s sensibilities, or is at least self-aware enough to recognize trends that are overhyped, ridiculous or both.
Rebranding as “Voltswagen” may have backfired in this case because the move to electric vehicles is not just a fad but a seismic shift in an industry that doesn’t have the best track record in terms of its environmental impact.
Humour is risky because it often involves taking ideas to an extreme, but I suspect the intent here was to poke fun at rival car brands that have tried to one-up each other in their positioning around electric vehicles. It suggested Volkswagen knows customers may be sick of all the marketing lip-service, and that they are intelligent enough to see through it.
What’s sad about this stunt is that Volkswagen dressed it up in the language of customer centricity. Those lines about building EVs “for the millions, not just millionaires” and being “the peoples’ car” shouldn’t be a punchline. They are worthy ambitions for all automotive manufacturers. Take that kind of approach and you won’t necessarily have customers laughing, but you may inspire something more valuable: their loyalty.
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.