Voltswagen? How the April fools at VW failed at pranking.

Volkswagen posted, then withdrew, a press release about renaming the company as “Voltswagen” to reflect a commitment to electric cars. Apparently it was an April Fools joke — and very poorly executed at that.

Here’s the timeline of how it went down:

  • Monday, 29 March: Press release about the rebranding “accidentally” posted on VW Website, then deleted. Unnamed sources tell media “No, it’s not a joke, it’s a real thing.”
  • Tuesday, 30 March: News release announces rebranding posted on VW site. Here’s an excerpt, from the text, later deleted:

Voltswagen: A new name for a new era of e-Mobility

Mar 30, 2021

* U.S. name change from Volkswagen of America to Voltswagen of America begins May 2021

* Rebranding to include revised name, brand guidelines and VW.com design

Herndon, VA, March 30, 2021 – V.2 —Today, Volkswagen Group of America, is unveiling the official change of its U.S. brand name from Volkswagen of America to Voltswagen of America.

More than a name change, “Voltswagen” is a public declaration of the company’s future-forward investment in e-mobility. By definition, Volts are the derived units for electric potential between two points. The new name and branding symbolize the highly-charged forward momentum Voltswagen has put in motion, pursuing a goal of moving all people point-to-point with EVs.

“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,” said Scott Keogh, president and CEO of Voltswagen of America. “The idea of a ‘people’s car’ is the very fabric of our being. We have said, from the beginning of our shift to an electric future, that we will build EVs for the millions, not just millionaires. 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.”

  • Tuesday night: Volkswagen announces it is a stunt. “There will be no renaming of Volkswagen of America,” Volkswagen spokesman Mark Gillies said in an emailed statement. “The alleged renaming was designed to be an announcement in the spirit of April Fools’ Day, highlighting the launch of the all-electric ID.4 SUV and signaling our commitment to bringing electric mobility to all.”

Nearly everything wrong with what Volkswagen tried to do

“Voltswagen” was a bad idea, poorly planned, and poorly executed. Here’s why.

  • April Fool’s pranks are over. There have been so many April Fool’s pranks that consumers and media observers are jaded. After four years of volatile and angry politics, a year in which half a million people died from a virus, people cooped up in their houses or unemployed, and massive amounts of fake news spreading, nobody has any patience for unfunny “news” that turns out to be a joke.
  • It’s not funny. Because there are so many poorly executed pranks, the only pranks that generate anything other than resentment are the ones that are knowingly self-deprecating and funny. Google’s Dutch self-driving bicycle comes to mind. These pranks build with more and more absurd claims, so you, as a consumer, say “Is this a joke? This sounds like a joke. This is getting so outlandish. Ah, it is a joke.” Volkswagen’s fake press release is humorless and the company does not poke fun at itself. It’s not funny, it’s just weird.
  • It was rolled out ineptly. You don’t “tease” an April Fool’s joke. You wait until April 1, then release it knowingly. VW’s multiple instances of posting and then withdrawing the release — and its denials, followed by admissions that it’s a joke — attenuated the impact. When a child attempts to tell a joke, they will often inadvertently telegraph the punch line, which undermines the humor. That’s what Volkswagen did. The joke stumbled out of the gate and didn’t even make it to April 1 without falling on its face.
  • It’s transparent marketing. VW wants us to associate it with electric cars. But people don’t like to feel manipulated. This is heavy-handed and ineffective, especially since its actual electric cars are underwhelming.
  • VW is already in trouble for lying. You might have forgotten how VW manipulated software to fool emissions testers. Until now, of course, when VW’s fake name change makes you think, “Are they lying again?”

Isn’t any publicity good publicity?

There is, of course, an alternate viewpoint here. As a result of this failed joke, there are now lots of stories about Volkswagen and electric cars in the media.

This will indeed create awareness that VW has an electric car program. And that awareness was virtually free; it required no advertising spending. Is that the brilliant outcome that VW was seeking all along?

Of course, the problem with free media is that it is not in your control. In this case, the message is “Volkswagen wanted to publicize its electric car program, but instead it rolled out an unfunny joke about changing its name that will soon be forgotten.” I’m not sure that incompetence in marketing and attempts to fool the public are the messages that Volkswagen really wanted to spread along with electric car awareness.

Don’t forget the executives who lied to the media about this being a joke. Do you think those journalists will be favorably inclined to trust Volkswagen in the future?

Speaking as a person who has now bought and owned several electric vehicles, I know that electric car buyers do research — we don’t buy on impulse. (This is true of most car buyers, but especially people investing a new technology like electric cars.) It’s easy to find all the electric models out there. It’s easy to compare them on features like range, dependability, features, roominess, styling, and price.

If VW has an electric vehicle available, the electric car buyer is going to find it. They don’t need a poorly executed fake joke name to hear about it or take it seriously.

Maybe you think this failed marketing stunt was worth it in free publicity. Go ahead, prove me wrong. I’d like to see that.

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  1. I think it’s even worse than you say. Volkswagen – in particular VW in the US – used to have peerlessly good brand management, as well as flawless advertising (from the master, Mr Bernbach). All of it was an emblem of the cars’ rock-solid engineering philosophy, just like Vorsprung Durch Technik’ is for their partners at Audi.
    It’s the poor judgement that makes the whole brand suddenly look shaky – investors should worry

  2. re: “Maybe you think this failed marketing stunt was worth it in free publicity. Go ahead, prove me wrong. I’d like to see that.”
    Is the proposition (or any marketing proposition) falsifiable or is the question rhetorical bullshit in which case is the blog title misleading?

  3. When my kids were young, and I suspected they were fibbing, I would ask, “If it turns out you’ve just lied, may I tickle you without mercy for 30 seconds?” More often than not, they’d giggle, “No!” The jig was up.
    Every suspected liar should be asked a grown-up version of that question. Maybe, “If it turns out you’ve lied, will you give me a million dollars within 10 days? If not, why not?”
    Especially at White House briefings.