Volkswagen Needs to Go From April Fools' Prank to More Sustainable Purpose

Why mislead when you can be bold and do better?

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With Covid-19 vaccinations rising, many consumers and automotive advertisers are now glancing at the global pandemic in their collective rearview mirrors and looking forward to open roads of possibility. 

Volkswagen thought its April Fools’ prank was destined for electric buzz. Instead, its amped-up communications revealing a new name stalled out with consumers, media and the creative community. 

With an unassuming, yet bold tweet on March 30, the storied German automaker announced to the world a name change. A few diehard followers were celebratory, many were confused and some saw the moniker mayhem from Volkswagen to Voltswagen as a playful prank. 

Volkswagen threw fuel on a fire of media and consumers clamoring for good news and brands emerging successfully into a post-pandemic world. A highly orchestrated chorus of communications included a corporate press release with emphatic statements from VW executives that were in lock step with the rebranding reality. The Associated Press, USA Today and The Washington Post were some of the first to report on this “leaked” fake press release, with one article quoting VW of America CEO Scott Keogh as stating, “We might be changing out our K for a T, but what we aren’t changing is this brand’s commitment to making best-in-class vehicles for drivers and people everywhere.” 


One day later, VW laughed off the conflating coverage and let everyone know it was a playful ruse of corporate shenanigans. Was this timing, with fake news and falsehoods still fresh in our collective zeitgeist, optimal for VW to so ornately misalign and mislead? The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual global report on consumer and brand perceptions around trust, found that “70% say trusting a brand is more important today than in the past—a shared belief among age groups, gender and income, and that 81% say personal vulnerability (around health, financial stability and privacy) is a reason why brand trust has become more important.” 

More critically, how did it make sense to falsify information, not only by the marketing team, but corporate executives of an auto brand that only a few years ago crashed consumers’ trust with the corporate conspiracy known as dieselgate? At the time of that corporate crisis in 2015, Adweek’s coverage highlighted “VW’s goodwill valuation of $23 billion on its balance sheet,” and that “while goodwill is an intangible asset … it’s an important one.” 

Now, more than ever, the intangibility of goodwill is tangible with brands establishing, bolstering and building corporate social responsibility programs, environment, social and governance initiatives and corporate social responsibility projects based on and woven into department, corporate and brand key performance indicators. Salaries in the C-suite are tied to sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion. Other automotive brands are revving up their goodwill in these challenging times, as global CMO for General Motors Deborah Wahl recently stated: “GM looks at a crisis as a moment to contribute,” and that “consumers look at companies in a different light” when they see brands step up to help, she noted. With this stunt, where does VW fit in among competing brands’ bold moves? 

It’s been an annual tradition in April for brands to pull the creative wool over consumers’ eyes, but we’re at a crossroad where clowning around and climate change may not reflect positively on a brand’s position. The United Nations recently launched 17 sustainable development goals that are guiding tenets brands can embrace philosophically and operationally. Advertisers are taking notice to authentically reflect and commit to bold, forward-thinking initiatives and learning from corporate leaders and creative thinkers. Now is the time for Volkswagen to consider shifting from pranks to purposeful commitments.