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April Fools' Day usually comes with a combination of clever and awful pranks by companies. The marketing stunts — remember Google Maps turning Pacman loose on the town? — either get folks talking about the fun prank or leave the internet grumbling. This year, more brands took the gags a step further and formed some unlikely partnerships in the name of absurd fake products.
Let's start with the surprising cooperation between fast food chain Arby's and hipster eyeglass manufacturer Warby Parker. They joined up for a venture called WArby's, which made an onion ring monocle that shoppers could actually buy at two Warby Parker and Arby's locations in New York City during April Fools' weekend.
WArby's is an odd pairing, but it's not the only one. SodaStream was working with Bed Bath & Beyond, and Easter-staple Peeps joined forces with Energizer batteries.
Partnering with another company for an April Fools' joke ramps up the possibility to either go really well or backfire terribly.
If brands find the right counterpart for a viral partnership, it can create a great synergy, according to Michelle Greenwald, marketing professor at NYU Stern. She says that it can be a funny juxtaposition and bring new audiences to both brands. Warby Parker's brand isn't one that's generally associated with comedy, so Arby's can help lighten the mood and bring comedy to the table. Greenwald says that the brands' different audiences can help bring exposure to both of them and create more widespread awareness without spending much money.
Warby Parker knows its audience's needs well. "It turns out a lot of people who like to eat also like to see — and vice versa — so there's a lot of crossover with new fans," co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal said.
WArby's seems to be a natural fit, but it's important for companies to think about who they're partnering with before entering into the venture, warns Lauri Harrison, a marketing lecturer at Columbia University's School of Professional Studies.
"Sales should not be the goal. Being human is most important. April Fools' is a way to help [companies] connect with people in a different way that stands out," Harrison said. "Don't make it like a Superbowl ad."
Corporate April Fools' jokes won't be successful if they're not genuine, she said. If the companies do something really clever or funny, it can drive exposure and make people think about the brand without feeling like they're being sold an obvious product.
PepsiCo's Cheetos got the concept when it poked fun at the holiday shopping season with the release of an absurd collection of extravagantly named holiday collectibles. Products included a cheese-scented perfume named "Cheeteau" and a $20,000 "Eye of the Cheetah" gold jewelry set, but the most iconic was its bright orange bronzer. Bad spray tans have been long ridiculed for turning people Cheeto-orange, so Cheetos got rid of the need for a spray tan with its Colour de Cheetos Bronzer, providing beauty lovers a "vibrant Cheetos glow."
Harrison said this was the perfect example of how companies can be playful and successful in marketing. Humanizing the brand and avoiding advertising the snack was a really smart move, she added.
SodaStream's April Fools' partnership with Bed Bath & Beyond misses the mark and comes across as more overt advertising, Harrison said. The companies partnered up to create a fake product called the "SodaSoak" which carbonates bathwater.
Harrison says that clicking on the fake product and being taken straight to a Bed Bath & Beyond shopping page that recommends shoppers buy real SodaStream products goes against the ethos of a good April Fools' joke.
Greenwald agrees: "Leave it as being a joke. It comes across as inauthentic, it feels like you're being tricked."
WArby's didn't seem like it was trying to trick people into buying glasses or burgers. With all the proceeds going to charity, WArby's looked like more of a lighthearted and genuine campaign. Being genuine, socially aware and current with these campaigns can be really great for companies, adds Greenwald.
As Dave Gilboa, co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker puts it, "You can't pass up a medium-rare opportunity like this. It's as simple as that."