UPDATE: May 3, 2021: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has opened an inquiry into Volkswagen of America to investigate how the company's share price was affected by the Voltswagen stunt, according to a report by Der Spiegel.
- Volkswagen of America confirmed that a plan unveiled Tuesday to rebrand as Voltwsagen of America was actually an April Fools' Day prank. The elaborate ruse promoting the automaker's electric vehicle offerings has drawn the ire of reporters who claim they were duped by sources inside the company, as reported in Ad Age.
- CNBC, Reuters, the Associated Press and this publication were among the outlets that took the initial Voltswagen announcement at face value. The news release detailing the change, which leaked early Monday, has since disappeared from Volkswagen's U.S. media site, while some social posts promoting the rebrand remain live at press time.
- Given Volkswagen's corporate baggage when it comes to false emissions claims and broader concerns over the spread of misinformation online, it remains to be seen if the stunt does more harm than good for the brand's larger EV mission.
Volkswagen pulled a fast one on the media and consumers with the hoax Voltswagen makeover, which promised substantial changes to the company's branding assets and website in line with its larger push into EV offerings like the new all-electric ID.4 SUV.
While marketers often run April Fools' Day stunts, Volkswagen's proved more complex and potentially ethically dubious than most, with reporters claiming that internal sources at the automaker lied to them to keep up the ruse. Though details of the rebrand were scant, the concept clearly wasn't so absurd as to immediately read as a prank to many industry watchers, including those experienced on the automotive beat. Other major auto brands, including General Motors and Kia, have recently refreshed their logos and vehicle fleets to focus more on sustainable products.
The way the prank played out could throw some cold water on whatever buzz the company generated online with the move, experts said.
"The fact that the intent behind this is unclear makes the whole thing feel even more flimsy and unserious," Mario Natarelli, managing partner at brand intimacy agency MBLM, said in emailed comments. "Brand building for large corporations like this isn't about gimmicks or a play on your name. I will sound old-fashioned; however, when did social chatter become more treasured than brand consistency?"
The feeling that Volkswagen was dishonest with reporters could also compound on past missteps that have eroded trust in the brand.
Volkswagen is still grappling with fallout from a 2015 scandal where the Environmental Protection Agency revealed the company had cheated government emissions tests to make its vehicles appear more eco-friendly. The controversy dubbed Dieselgate has cost Volkswagen tens of billions of dollars to mitigate, while hampering its brand reputation. Volkswagen last week asserted claims for damages against former chief executive Martin Winterkorn and former Audi CEO Rupert Stadler, both of whom were in charge during the scandal, Reuters reported.
Volkswagen has recovered some of its mojo by prioritizing sustainability in recent years. As the release for Voltswagen noted, the company was the first major automaker to support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and also one of the five brands that signed on for proposed fuel economy regulations in California that impose stricter thresholds on CO2 emissions.
The faux rebrand could have been an effort to rib rivals like GM, whose own EV-minded makeover has inspired some criticism. But the swelling confusion that Voltswagen generated might ultimately district from Volkswagen's more serious commitments to sustainability.
"VW didn't need to change its name to signal it was serious about electric vehicles. They also don't need to mimic GM's poor rebranding efforts nor try to get attention for attention's sake," Natarelli said. "Continue to focus on the new products (ID.4 etc.) and put tangible proof behind the brand's promise."
Volkswagen earlier this week launched a TV and digital campaign promoting the new ID.4 model. A series of three short films, developed with agency partner Johannes Leonardo, promote mass EV adoption and tech features included in the vehicle hitting dealership lots this month.