Is Volkswagen really changing its name to ‘Voltswagen’?
Is Volkswagen really rebranding to "Voltswagen?" The move can’t be ruled out—at least in some fashion—but signs point to it being an elaborate April Fools’ Day stunt.
The American division of the German automaker on Monday put a press release on its media site stating that Volkswagen Group of America “is unveiling the official change of its U.S. brand name from Volkswagen of America to Voltswagen of America” to lean into its aggressive electric vehicle production plans. But the release was incomplete, including one section labeled “TK, TK,” which is often used to stand for “to come.” It also contained a date of 4/29/21.
The automaker later pulled the release with a spokesman saying it was “not meant to publish.” But several major media outlets ran with the news, quoting anonymous sources that claimed the name change was actually happening. CNBC ran a headline: “VW accidentally leaks new name for its U.S. operations: Voltswagen.”
Then today, Volkwagen republished the release in its entirety, and also began updating its social media feeds, including this tweet:
When asked about today’s press release, a VW of America spokesman said: “Because of yesterday’s media site error, not all planned elements of the naming changeover are finalized, but there was no sense in trying to hide for another month. We are limiting statements to the updated press release at this time and expect to provide additional comments very soon.”
Jochen Sengpiehl, the Germany-based global chief marketing officer for the Volkswagen brand, this morning posted a LinkedIn message linking to the VW of America press release, while saying, “We fully support it. Electric isn’t just the future, it’s the right now. Please share to everyone!”
Several of his followers were skeptical, alluding to April Fools’ Day, with one person replying: "Cool idea! But in the US it is just We-Double-You anyway, and that can remain the same. Let's see if this new name will persist beyond April 1st. 🤣"
The skepticism is warranted, given how the news has been rolled out. For one, if VW was making a move of this magnitude, it would seem likely the company would make executives available for interviews. As of Tuesday morning that had not happened.
The issuance of a premature press release on such an important matter also seems a bit fishy. Ad Age received an email from a generic name and Gmail address from a Diana 16 with the subject line “Voltswagen - VW Mistake / Scoop?” and a link to the Monday press release. This person has not responded to multiple emails, possibly raising suspicions that it was some sort of maneuver to generate media interest. The supposed tip came minutes before Kimberley Gardiner, VP of marketing at Volkswagen of America, made a previously scheduled live appearance on Ad Age Remotely, a live video interview show. When asked about news release, she said, "It’s a surprise to me and all I can say is I am asking my PR people to get on it right now.” Asked if it was an April Fools’ stunt she said: “Not that I am aware of right now.” But she did not elaborate, and it's possible she was playing along.
Judge her reaction for yourself at the 9.40 mark here.
Jeremy Mullman, a partner at marketing agency ICF Next, who has been involved in other brand April Fool's Day stunts, called the notion that a company would mistakenly issue a press release early “improbable.” More telling, perhaps, is that any brand would have a press release ready so early—if we are to assume VW actually did release the news a month early by mistake. Mullman notes the multiple layers of approvals that drafts such press releases usually go through.
Volkswagen has also not registered “Voltswagen” as a registered trademark, according to a search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database. “It would be unlikely that they would choose a new name without registering. Or at least filing what’s called an intent to use unless they think the name is so close no one could get [it] so they wait until they announce to file, but I think that’s unlikely,” an ad lawyer told Ad Age, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Even so, many news outlets are treating the news seriously, especially in wake of Tuesday’s press release, which includes details such as the following: “Starting today, new branding will roll out across all of the company’s advertising, website and social media channels. Moving forward, ‘Voltswagen’ will be placed as an exterior badge on all EV models with gas vehicles sporting the VW emblem only.”
Ad Age asked the VW of America spokesman for interviews with executives, and also to confirm that the news is not an April Fools’ stunt. He responded that “some of our execs should be speaking out on the news very soon– please stay tuned.”
It is possible that VW could find a way to create a “Voltswagen” sub-brand, and still stay true to the nature of the announcement, especially now that so many people are taking it seriously.
But it's also not unprecedented for companies to make temporary name changes. Consider IHOP, which in June 2018 began calling itself “IHOb,” by flipping the P that stands for pancakes in its acronym of a name into a b for burgers. The name change occurred everywhere online and at one actual restaurant. As Ad Age reported a year later looking back on the move, “It worked really well even as it annoyed plenty of people.”
Volkswagen could be in trickier terrain. The brand in 2015 dealt with a major crisis when it was caught cheating on emissions regulations by using software intended to evade testing. The brand’s aggressive move into electric vehicles is one way for it to regain its environmental credentials. And if the renaming—real or not—brings more attention to its electric vehicle ambitions, then it is possible that it could help VW's image, especially as so many other automakers are rushing into the electric vehicle space.
However, if VW does not deliver something tangible related to the renaming, people could be left feeling pretty confused and maybe unfulfilled, given the media attention it has gotten.
“If this is a gag, I would assume the payoff is that they want to put more eyeballs on what they are doing in the electric car area,” Mullman says. “The danger is people feel deceived, and of course for Volkswagen, that is probably a little more risky than most because they have some not-long-ago issues in the trust department.”