The Difference Between Thunder and Lightning

By Jason Searcy | Senior Copywriter

Electricity is in the air. The world’s leading car brands are all talking about their visions for a zero-emissions future and the electric vehicles that will take us there. But over the last few weeks, two stood out – for very different reasons.

Volkswagen teases a name change.

On March 29, Volkswagen posted a press release, which has since been deleted, that said it would be changing its name in the U.S. to “Voltswagen” to signify the company’s “future-forward investment in e-mobility.” Sources at Volkswagen of America confirmed it. Others in the company’s Germany headquarters denied it. The air came out of the tires on March 30, still a day shy of April Fool’s Day. It turned out to be a clumsy joke that was intended to get people talking about the new ID.4 electric SUV. It got people talking, all right. It confused and annoyed them, too.

Volvo unveils “The Ultimate Safety Test.”

A few weeks later, Volvo, along with agency partner Grey, released an ambitious video that proposes a big idea: Saving the planet for future generations is just as important as saving lives during a car crash. It presents climate change as “The Ultimate Safety Test,” and the company believes so strongly in this vision that it has laid out a plan to fully transition to electric vehicles within the next several years.

It’s easy to poke fun at a flop and praise the virtues of great work. But it’s important to dig a little deeper to understand why one idea connected, why the other went off the rails and what can be learned from both.

Tip 1: Check brand alignment every 6,000 miles.

First off, there was no reason for Volkswagen’s bait-and-switch. Just a basic rhyme. While the company is an icon of advertising, it seems they were blinded by the promise of an easy April Fool’s payday of Tweets, likes and follows. Conversely, Volvo’s spot was infused with the DNA of its brand, which has for decades been synonymous with safety. No other carmaker could pull off such a smooth transition from talking about protecting people to preserving the planet.

Tip 2: Humor depends on the roads you’ve traveled.

Saving the planet is no laughing matter, either. That’s why it was a bit awkward for VW to use its name as a prop to tease the public about their commitment to EVs, especially in light of 2015’s Dieselgate emissions scandal. Humor can require a lighter touch, one that’s appropriate not just for the subject at hand, but also the brand presenting it. Volvo’s affable tour guide, Bjorn, offers the perfect dash of Swedish oddity, balanced by a strong commitment to real change.

Tip 3: Pay attention. Is your “selfish” light on?

While the efforts of VW and Volvo differ widely, so do the motivations behind them. The “Voltswagen” name change was all about creating short-term buzz to sell a new product. However, Volvo set its sights far beyond their own bottom line today. The Ultimate Safety Test is just the tip of the spear in a campaign that elevates sustainability to the same level of importance as traditional safety. In fact, the automaker laid out firm commitments for the future, aiming to make 50% of vehicle sales fully electric by 2025 and transition their entire portfolio to EVs by 2030.

Powering the future will take more than words.

Volkswagen and Volvo are just two players in a vast EV landscape that’s getting more crowded by the day. To lead the way, automakers will need to do more than simply make noise. They will have to charge forward with a clear vision, powerfully communicated ideas and the action to back it all up.