April Fools' Day: Reflecting on the industry’s favourite marketing campaigns

April Fools' Day: Reflecting on the industry’s favourite marketing campaigns

April Fools’ Day presents an opportunity for brands across all sectors to captivate audiences in a whole new way. Over the years, businesses have leveraged this day, historically branded to prank, not only to entertain, but to spark conversation, generate media attention, and showcase their values, personalities and wit.

CIM have spoken to some leading marketers to revisit some of the standout creative campaigns over the past few years that have left lasting impact and impressions in the minds of consumers.

Mark Scott, Director of Marketing and Communications at CIM:

"McDonald’s memorable April Fools’ Day campaign in 2019 saw the launch of an interesting new product: Milkshake Sauce Pots, aimed at those who enjoy dipping their fries into their milkshake. The campaign took off with a short 19-second video shared on McDonald's UK Twitter (now X) account showcasing the sauces in action, which quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views.

The content sparked enthusiastic responses from fans, before they realised it was, in fact, a prank. Surprisingly (depending on your taste), some even expressed disappointment when they learned that the Milkshake Sauce Pots wouldn't become a permanent menu item.

What made this campaign successful was the use of a simple, if a little quirky, customer insight and embracing it. By tapping into the unexpected and leveraging a compelling image to accompany the story, the campaign sparked conversation and McDonald's UK effectively and creatively engaged its audience.

The best April Fools’ Day campaigns are united by a couple of elements. Firstly, they are self-referential and often self-deprecating. Brands should be open to the fact that they don’t have all the answers, and often consumers see them differently to how they see themselves. And secondly, they have an element of the realistic. These campaigns can actually be a smart way to test the waters - if the consumer response to a fun idea is positive, this can act as valuable insight for genuine marketing initiatives later down the line."

Paul Hitchens, CIM Course Director and Brands, Communication and Culture Strategist at VerveBrand.com:

“The National Trust's April Fools’ Day campaign in 2017 stands out as a prime example of leveraging humour to reinforce brand values. It announced the discovery of a second chalk creature next to the world-famous Uffington White Horse. The outline of a Duck and the hint of a possible Duck Tribe was told, using persuasive imagery and an accompanying video to add a visual edge on social media.

Aside from the light-hearted nature of the stunt, the campaign beautifully illustrated the National Trust’s purpose of conservation and education. The campaign resonated with audiences worldwide as membership of the National Trust reached five million for the first time, showcasing the power of storytelling and creativity in marketing.”

Richard Moss, CEO at Good Relations:

"B&Q’s campaign in 2016 saw the White Cliffs of Dover being painted by a team of painters as part of an annual restoration project. The story was a testament to the impact of visual storytelling. Presenting a compelling image alongside a humorous, yet somewhat ridiculous concept, B&Q effectively captured audience attention and created conversation and buzz.

The campaign demonstrated the importance of leveraging both creativity and visual elements to create a memorable idea."

Ellie Murphy, Managing Consultant and CIM Scotland Chair:

"The cracking collaboration between Irn-Bru, Tunnock's, and the Scottish Football Association for the launch of the new national team kits ahead of the 2020 Euros stands out for its clever blend of Scottish pride, humour, and brand alignment.

The campaign captured widespread media attention and social media buzz by boldly branding the national team kits with Irn-Bru and Tunnock's logos. This wasn’t just a subtle sponsorship logo on an arm of a jersey; it was a full-on, in-your-face branded Irn-Bru and Tunnock's kits.

Displaying a fantastic effort in its ability to integrate brand identities in line with a national event, the campaign successfully tapped into the passion of Scottish football fans and embraced the fun, lighthearted and cheeky brand personas of Irn-Bru and Tunnock's. It was a really simple idea, with minimal costs involved, and not only generated significant traction but also successfully resonated with its target audience. Fans were clamouring to buy the kit even after realising what date it was!"

The need for a cautious approach

While April Fools’ Day gives marketers a chance to remind its customers and clients of their brands’ personality, doing so with care is essential.

Allyson Stewart-Allen, CEO, International Marketing Partners:

"In 2021, Volkswagen decided to issue an official press release that it was changing the name of its American division to ‘Voltswagen’. It was an effort to position the car maker as a leader in EVs and even included a new logo. While the campaign initially generated significant engagement across various social media platforms and news outlets, it ultimately backfired. Trust in the company’s environmental credentials had been eroded by the dieselgate debacle, and the campaign came to be seen as poor taste in that light.

For CMOs and marketing teams, the key lesson here is to escape the echo chamber and thoroughly test campaigns to ensure they resonate positively with diverse audiences worldwide. It's crucial to consider cultural sensitivities, historical context, and potential fallout before launching any marketing initiative, especially on April Fools’ Day, when campaigns can be taken as tokenistic and insensitive.

Conducting comprehensive research and seeking diverse perspectives is always beneficial for marketers to mitigate the risk of unintended consequences of campaigns, and maintain trust with desired audiences. Additionally, transparency and authenticity should always be prioritised to build and sustain brand credibility in the long run."


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