April Fool’s Day jokes? Don’t be a tone-deaf brand

Corporate April Fool’s Day jokes have become an annual tradition. Over the years, some brands have won big while others have failed miserably.

Enter this year’s April Fool’s swing and a miss. Noted corporate renegade Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, tweeted that the company was going bankrupt. The language used in the tweet (“a last-ditch mass sale of Easter Eggs,” for example) made it clear to most that it was a joke.

However, that’s not the point.

Poor timing

Anyone paying attention realized that Tesla was coming off one of the bumpiest stretches in its already tumultuous history. From a fatal crash involving a self-driving Tesla Model X and the recall of over 100,000 Model S sedans due to power steering issues, to increased questions about the company’s ability to meet production, was this really the time to be making jokes? Many analysts and investors thought not.

I tend to agree, and accuse Musk of being tone-deaf in this instance. While he may have built his personal brand by being quirky and rocking the boat at times, he seems to have forgotten that as the leader of a publicly traded company, he has thousands of employees and investors looking to him for real and stable leadership. Especially after a series of concerning developments from the automaker, the market was looking for assurance that the company was taking these issues seriously. The message to investors was anything but that.

Tesla stock had already experienced its worst month in history, and it dropped another 7 percent the day after this ill-timed joke. This drop was not likely due to investors seeing any truth in his bankruptcy tweet. Rather, I’d argue that it was just another sign of the market’s concern about — and impatience with — Mr. Musk’s commitment to taking his company’s troubles seriously.

“It was not funny, because it’s not a joking matter,” said Gene Munster, who leads research for the venture capital firm Loup Ventures. “It wasn’t appropriate, because they had probably their worst week since the company was started, and it’s just not the week to be making jokes.”

Don’t be tone-deaf

I believe this example lends itself to a communications discussion far broader than just April Fool’s jokes.

In recent years, it has become more and more common for brands to show humor, personality and even a bit of irreverence. This has been a fun development, and I believe it has allowed brands to connect with their customers on a much deeper level than ever before. However, I see too many companies forcing this type of approach and doing it just for the sake of doing it … without carefully considering their approach. Or worse yet, being tone-deaf to factors that may result in backlash related to their messaging.

While the Tesla example is likely more dramatic and widespread than anything your company might expect to experience, it’s still important to ask yourself some simple questions before implementing a proactive or humorous marketing campaign or stunt:

  • Will it resonate with your audience?
  • Is it consistent with your brand?
  • Is it authentic or will it come across as “forced”?
  • Will it alienate any part of your audience?
  • Is the timing right?

Have questions about the right tone for your brand’s messaging? Let’s talk.


Author: Mike Trainor
Mike Trainor is our Vice President.

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