The Importance of Reading the Room

Humour is a marketing concept which many businesses have toyed with over the years. We have seen brands take to social media and use comedy and camaraderie as a form of marketing, from sarcastic and humorous responses to customer queries to viral threads of well-known brands making fun of each other’s campaigns.

This humour more than often increases brand awareness and is entertaining for both the customers and fellow competition, but what happens when the ‘harmless’ jokes don’t go to plan?

Automobile giant, Volkswagen, issued a statement this week declaring their rebranding in the US to “Voltswagen”. With the company’s acceleration into the battery electric vehicle market and future devotion towards a potential carbon-neutral future, it made sense.

The report was taken seriously by multiple international media outlets, rival companies, as well as financial analysts. Volkswagen’s shares even began to skyrocket with common shares having closed 10.3% higher at one stage.

However, on Tuesday Volkswagen had to come clean, admitting that it was a pre-April Fool’s Day joke. The intention was to generate awareness around the environmental issues caused by the automotive industry; however, it left many journalists and Twitter users offended.

We can see how Volkswagen rose through the ranks on Twitter in the following chart, even exceeding Tesla mentions, however for all the wrong reasons.

Our Text Mining software has picked up the most popular Tweets from the last few days discussing Volkswagen’s surprising prank.

“NEW – German carmaker Volkswagen rebranding to #Voltswagen in the US is `premature April Fool`s joke. US press angry, citing “misinformation problem” in the country.”

“Volkswagen of America lied about rebranding to ‘Voltswagen’”

“Apparently no one in the approval process at @VW said, hey maybe we shouldn’t lie to the press given the whole, you know, emissions lying thing… Volkswagen’s name change of U.S. operations to ‘Voltswagen’ was April Fool’s marketing prank, source says

The moral of this story is to always read the room. Test the waters. Understand your audience. A main criticism of Volkswagen’s joke is how they are still in deep waters after the Dieselgate affair, the company’s dishonesty regarding the millions of cheated emission tests and cover-ups.

By conducting data analysis of consumer opinions, Volkswagen may have been able to prevent such damage by gaining an understanding of how the general public felt towards the brand and whether comical marketing would be accepted. It demonstrated how careful brands must be with the messages they share through social media and how business insights are essential in perfecting a brand’s voice.

For Volkswagen, burnt bridges clearly haven’t yet been rebuilt, and it seems that this latest stunt may have just struck another match.