Posted by Rob Toledo
Everyone likes humor; we all know this.
But humor can seem risky when it comes to branding—it has certainly backfired on numerous occasions when a company takes things perhaps a bit too far (or sometimes when it is just misunderstood).
On the other hand, playing it too safe is also a great way to remain somewhere in the middle. Almost everyone likes the middle. Nobody loses their job in the middle. Customers come and go at a steady rate in the middle. Nobody boycotts the middle.
To quote the greatest show of all time, “Ain’t nobody got nothing to say about a 40-degree day.”
From HBO: source
A lot of brands talk about wanting to take risks. They might even discuss some radical ideas in the safety of their own conference rooms. But most of the time we end up with “safe” when it’s time to execute on a strategy.
Does any of this sound familiar?
“Let’s tweet more!”
“How about we make a hilarious infographic!”
“Let’s put one of those meme things on our blog!”
“Our competitor just did that one awesome thing, let’s do the exact same thing!”
Don’t DO something, BE something
One of my favorite books of all time, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, discusses the topic of “being something” as opposed to just “doing something.”
“When a client says ‘we want to seem cooler’ the answer isn’t an ad that says ‘we’re cool’—the answer is to BE cool.”
It’s important to make any attempt at a strategy—especially when it involves humor—a full effort where you’re not simply doing something for the occasional chuckle. You are going to have to fight a much more difficult (but fully worthwhile) battle of changing the overall perception of your brand.
Do you think every brand should partake in a strategy involving humor?
I think every brand is capable, but not every brand should try. I think the downfall of humor in advertising or online is when a business starts becoming a sideshow and the brand is lost in the mix. A lot of brands get too focused on laughs: Entertaining an audience is great, but you’re still trying to sell things.
I also think that there are some products or services where humor needs to be considered extremely carefully – things like child welfare, etc.
Can you list some examples of brands that overstepped the boundaries on using humor?
What are some of your favorite examples of brands using humor as a strategy well?
- Bodyform’s CEO videos did exceptionally well.
- The LA Kings hockey team’s tweets during the playoffs a few years ago.
- Domtar’s short video series did a great job with humor with a pretty lame (paper) product.
- The Skittles Facebook page has lots of gems.
OK great, humor is good; but where do we draw the line?
Well, that’s a tricky one as the line gets a bit fuzzy depending on a lot of variables. Every brand is going to have varying persona research, and you should know your customers better than anyone, so you’ll likely have to find that line on your own. Good customer research will be the key here.
For an extreme example, I think this KMart “Ship My Pants” campaign is the stuff of legends. It’s hilarious and teeters right on the line of offensive, all while remaining relevant to the brand (free shipping at KMart). They wanted to grow their online presence and drive traffic to their site with this campaign, which this ad certainly did as it got massive amounts of attention. It’s been hailed widely as a success, earning 19.5 million YouTube views, but they did earn themselves a small boycott from some folks who were offended, which has mostly fizzled.
This raises an important point: Take as much risk as you want, but try not to offend people in some key areas. I can ignore something I find slightly annoying pretty easily, but if it strikes a chord that offends one of my core principles, that’s when I’m going to get on my social media soapbox and start ranting.
Some things that are guaranteed to offend:
- Religious focus
- Political focus
- Being a bully (don’t pick on the little guy, even in retaliation)
- Making the wrong assumptions (research, research, research!)
So, how do you get started?
Make sure your humor is somehow relevant to your brand
“Oh, I see. All I have to do is show something interesting and funny for the first 25 seconds of the ad and then cut to the product?” – Luke Sullivan
While running a campaign where you just tell jokes and make funny videos might get a lot of attention, at the end of the day, making “cool stuff” is not a content strategy.
Find the ridiculous parts of your brand and “go there”
Vintage VW ad: source
“You know those really funny ideas you get that make you laugh and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could really do that?’ Those are often the very best ideas, and it is only your superego/parent/internalized client saying you can’t do it. You’ve stumbled on a mischievous idea. Something you shouldn’t do. That’s a good sign you’re onto something you SHOULD do. Revisit it.” – Luke Sullivan
Here are some of my most recent favorite examples of brands poking fun at themselves:
Making fun of your core product can be risky. VW used this strategy during its early advertising efforts and it paid massive dividends. Bigstock recently took that approach and fully embraced the concept of “awkward” in their photo collection.
It’s no secret that there are plenty of these awkward stock photos out there. But were you aware of the assortment of awkward “steak” photos available? Puns might be considered the lowest form of humor on the joke food chain, but be honest: You like them, no matter how deeply buried that linguistic love might be.
Taking the bland and boring parts of your business and attempting to make them exciting takes quite a bit of creativity, but it’s a powerful angle.
Nobody has paid attention to an airline safety presentation since 1974. Air New Zealand aimed to change that (and bring themselves plenty of brand recognition in the process) by making a mockery of the otherwise mind-numbing instructional sessions. Featuring Bear Grylls, The Lord of the Rings, and naked employees, these videos quickly grabbed the attention of all those aboard the aircraft as well as everyone online.
Criminal justice is hardly ever intentionally humorous, but the Seattle Police Department made it a part of their rebranding strategy. The department has been in hot water for the past several years from both local citizens as well as the federal government, so they brought in local journalist Jonah Spangenthal-Lee to attempt a rebrand. To say he has been knocking it out of the ballpark would be a major understatement.
Some recent highlights include their distributing Doritos to Hempfest attendees, releasing the funniest blog post about marijuana legalization of all time (seriously, read that one), pictures of their mounted patrol horses at the dentist and just generally being ridiculously responsive on social media, even to trolls.
What happened here? The city population started to view the department differently. Public perception quickly shifted positively, and before our very eyes, our police department had personality. There were real people that worked behind the badges. It was a huge risk to take on a humorous strategy—especially as a government agency–but it has quickly earned positive national attention with very little push-back.
Funny isn’t everything; it has to be based on something smart
“Should you do something humorous, don’t mistake a good joke for a good idea. Funny is fine. But set out to be interesting first. You must have an idea [of where to go next].” – Luke Sullivan
I’m repeating myself a bit here, but it’s always important to make sure that this humor is based on a solid overall strategy–that it is well researched and planned. Always think: Who is your ideal customer, and what do they find funny?
Lastly, keep in mind the Internet has a short memory
I know a lot of people worry about taking risks in fear of potential backlash, but ask yourself: Can you truly name more than a handful of brands that got a bunch of bad press in 2012 for a risky campaign? I understand that it can seem as if the world is ending when your brand takes a few days of heat for having taken a risk. But truthfully, in this day and age, unless you say something completely tasteless, I can assure you that a slight misstep here and there will come and go faster than you can brainstorm your next ideas. Just apologize and move on. Most importantly, quit being so afraid of taking chances in your next strategy.
What about you? Got any favorite creative campaigns that you felt have really worked? How about anything your own brand is doing?
Let me know in the comments below, or feel free to reach out on Twitter!
Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!