Volkswagen US name change to 'Voltswagen' was April Fool's joke gone awry

Volkswagen of America’s purported name change to “Voltswagen” was an April Fool’s joke gone bad.

On Monday, the automaker briefly posted, then removed, a draft press release on its website supposedly announcing it was changing its name to promote electric vehicles. VW then put out a media release Tuesday pledging to rebrand itself “Voltswagen” in the U.S. as “a public declaration of the company’s future-forward investment in e-mobility.”

Later Tuesday, the company fessed up.

“The renaming was designed to be an announcement in the spirit of April Fool’s Day,” VW said in a statement after removing the earlier release from its U.S. media site. “We will provide additional updates on this matter soon.” Earlier, a VW spokesperson at the German manufacturer’s headquarters in Wolfsburg called it “an interesting idea” from the marketing department.

VW may have gone too far in its effort to gin up buzz for its electrification push and the electric ID.4 crossover, which is just arriving in U.S. showrooms. Chief Executive Officer Herbert Diess has taken on a more active role in getting the message out that the company can challenge Tesla Inc. as an electric leader and distance itself from a disastrous diesel-emissions scandal.

Not funny

Those stakes are too high to joke about, said Tom Morton, chief strategy officer for the U.S. at advertising firm R/GA in New York.

“This is the most pressing challenge of the auto industry: ‘Can you go electric?’” Morton said. “Choosing to joke about it undermines their commitment.”

VW has become a stock-market darling of late with its rapid-fire EV announcements. Its common stock has soared about 80% this year, giving the company a market value of roughly 140 billion euros ($165 billion). The shares fell as much as 3.2% in early intraday trading Wednesday in Frankfurt.

Diess held a Tesla-esque “Power Day” presentation earlier this month in which he pledged to build six new battery factories in Europe. VW plans to deliver 1 million plug-in hybrid and fully electric vehicles this year, and Diess aims to surpass Tesla in EV sales no later than 2025. Some analysts predict it will happen much sooner.

It’s not unheard of for companies to use humor to gain publicity for a radical change, Morton said. IHOP famously renamed itself IHOB -- the International House of Burgers -- in a temporary stump to draw attention to its lunch menu.

“That’s mainly being done by fast-food brands, where the stakes are lower and they need a bit of hoopla,” Morton said, drawing a distinction with VW’s situation. “This is about a fundamental change of direction for a world-shaping industry and also one where there’s a lot of baggage.”

Prior gaffe

It’s the second major marketing gaffe for VW recently. The automaker caused an uproar last year with a video clip that showed a black man being controlled by a giant white hand.

The clip produced by Omnicom Group Inc.’s Berlin-based subsidiary Voltage sparked widespread criticism and tensions within the company. The automaker’s powerful labor representatives called it a “low point” and demanded an overhaul of social-media marketing.

VW vowed to tighten internal marketing controls but stopped short of removing executives and severing ties with agencies.

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