Company April Fools' jokes predate social media. In 1996, Taco Bell announced that it had purchased the Liberty Bell, enraging the patriotic classes. The following year, Burger King faux-introduced the Left-Handed Whopper, with all condiments rotated 180 degrees.

But jokes are meant to be shared. And now that they are endlessly sharable, April Fools' pranks attract almost as much critical attention as do Super Bowl ads--even generating Best and Worst lists. The day is also becoming a can’t-miss opportunity for marketers to show off their brands’ playful sides. For those wanting in on the mischief next year, here are some lessons from experienced pranksters:

1. Toy with brand expectations--to a point.

Most companies use April Fools' to present an extreme version of who they are. What's dicier is pretending to be--even for one day--something you’re not. Johnny Cupcakes T-shirt stores look like bakeries, sometimes frustrating sugar-starved consumers who wander in by mistake. On April 1, 2012, the company replaced the apparel in all its stores with actual cupcakes. “We only served shirts to the customers that complained loudly or traveled far for shirts,” says Lorraine Earle, the company’s business manager. “Everyone else went along with the joke.”

2. Try to stay on message.

Fans of Cheezburger.com were less forgiving. A few years ago, the humor site celebrated April Fools' Day by posting items that weren’t funny. On a related site devoted to “demotivational” posters, it substituted motivational ones. On its Fail Blog, it celebrated successes. “Some of our users really enjoyed it,” says director of publicity Emily Huh, who has worked on several of the company’s stunts. “But I think a lot of them just said, ‘I’ll come back tomorrow when you’re back to normal.’” (Cheezburger had a more enthusiastic reception when it advertised a line of cat clothing and plastered the site with pictures of Nicolas Cage.)

3. Look internally for inspiration.

Your employees know what’s funny about you. An April Fools' joke is not something to contract out to an agency. And the best ideas bubble up from the trenches. For the past two years, the men’s apparel company Bonobos has produced hoot-heavy videos: one about high-tech shirts that backfire; the other about “the girlfriend jean”: a super-slim-fit woman’s cut made for a guy. 

“These ideas started with just people in the office going out for beers, loosening up, and starting to throw things around,” says vice president of marketing Craig Elbert. “We have funny people that come up with good ideas, and that turns into something that gets us good word of mouth.”

Several pranks from Redbox, the DVD kiosk-rental service, have germinated in the mind of one person: Holly Ashworth, a senior copy editor. This year’s entry, for example, is Petbox, a DVD kiosk for pets that sprang from an idea for a series of animal-themed movie spoofs. The fake titles on offer in the nonexistent kiosks (Fifty Shades of GreyhoundThe Good, the Bad and the Snuggly) were created by the marketing team. But Ashworth had the initial inspiration when Redbox was marketing the Brad Pitt movie Fury. “Every time someone mentioned it, I thought it sounded like 'furry'” says Ashworth. “Instead of Interstellar, I got the word 'otterstellar' in my head.”

4. Make them slightly believable.

There’s a reason--besides adorableness-that so many pranks involve animals. Often jokes simply take what is known about a brand and tug it in an unexpected direction. Companies think, "What can I do with my product that I would never do with my product?” Creating a nonhuman version is a natural.

This year Zumba Fitness has produced a video announcing a new class aimed at dogs. Brand-wise that makes sense. The company is famously inclusive: If you are 0 to 100, there’s a program for you. “It was an easy, funny concept to say, ‘What about a Zumba class for animals?’” says PR director Allison Robins, who led the effort. “And our customers love new launches, so we thought it would drive traffic.”

Similarly, Petbox may be far-out, but it’s not off-brand. “Pet lovers rent and return movies when they are walking their dogs, because that is convenient,” says Redbox’s director of communications, Kate Brennan. “Pets are part of the family, and they watch TV on the couch with them. We see it constantly on social media. So that is absolutely there.”

5. Get a partner in crime.

Increasingly, companies are teaming up on jokes the way they’d partner on serious ventures. Last year Virgin Airlines and Nest announced individual climate control at 30,000 feet. Toms, the sustainable shoe company, partnered with Uber on cardboard vehicles. On Wednesday, Cheezburger is announcing the acquisition of the hip clothing company Betabrand. The news will be illustrated with photos of models wearing Betabrand designs while pulling the most outrageous derp faces imaginable. “Partnerships make it seem more valid,” says Huh. “We do a joint press release. And some people think, ‘Hey, those companies fit really well together.’” Until they see the result.

Partnerships also amplify the social media effect. For its dog class, Zumba is collaborating with BarkBox, a provider of pet-themed products by subscription. On its site, the company is inviting people to share photos of their dogs; at day's end, it will award BarkBox gift cards to the six cutest. “BarkBox has a high social following too, so there is a sharable, cross-promotional aspect of it,” says Robins.

6. Draw out the joke, if it's really (really) good.

Just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it can’t be true. Occasionally, the lives of jokes extend beyond April 1. In 2012, R. Torre & Company, which makes the Torani brand of syrups for coffee drinks, introduced a new flavor: Chicken 'N Waffles. Some in the foodie press were duped--especially because Torani craftily announced the flavor on March 31. The news generated so much real demand that Torani produced a limited run. “It sold out, of course, and people made crazy drinks with it, from coffee to cocktails," says CEO Melanie Dulbecco.

Warby Parker never did create the hipster glasses for dogs publicized on its virtuoso Warby Barker site--a 2012 stunt. This year the company pays homage to that acclaimed prank by inviting customers and their canines--ocularly challenged and otherwise--to visit its stores for treats, dog portraits, and other attractions. “We want to revisit the fun we had with Warby Barker, because one thing that has become super apparent is our customers love dogs,” says CEO Neil Blumenthal. “And now that we have stores, we can welcome them in.”

7. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Warby Barker was serendipitous. The name turned up on a list of top 10 Google search misspellings for Warby Parker. “Our director of consumer insights was like, ‘That's brilliant! We should sell dog glasses for a joke on April Fools' Day!’” says Blumenthal. The company hasn’t pulled a prank since, “because we haven’t come up with another really good one we thought was worthy of doing. It’s not about artificially coming up with an idea and using April’s Fools' Day as an excuse to drive traffic and sales. It’s more, hey, what can we do that is fun and interesting for our customers, whether that’s on April Fools' Day” or not.

After five years of increasingly ambitious pranks, Bonobos has nothing big planned this year for the same reason. “Going forward, it’s reassessing if we have something we are super excited about and we think the timing is right,” says Elbert. Like Blumenthal, he would rather seek organic ways to amuse customers throughout the year, as the company did in January with the tongue-in-cheek video for its new offering, Groomshop.

But Elbert has another reason for hanging back: The April Fools' landscape is simply too crowded. “Word of mouth is the same as any other currency,” he says. “And if there is a lot of noise out there, then that currency isn’t worth as much.”

8. Then again, maybe just keep it simple.

Google is among the finest practitioners of the April Fools' joke. When Inc. contacted the company for insight into its process, we received this reply from a spokesperson: “We take this holiday very seriously and invest significantly in human capital and advanced technologies to develop the best pranks for people around the world. Unfortunately, our team lead is leaving after seven years. This is her last day. We're hiring for a new Director, April Fools' Operations and Strategy, so, if anyone is interested, please reach out to prankster@google.com.”

Published on: Apr 1, 2015