As the war for attention intensifies and the world becomes more polarised politically, the role of humour in the promotional mix—whether as distraction or provocation—looks more beguiling than ever.
In recent years, we’ve seen humour used to fuel the march of disruptors and challengers such as Dollar Shave Club and Eve Sleep, to breathe self-parodic charm into B2Bers like Dissolve and Cisco, to liven up once-traditional advertisers like Old Spice and Audi, and to inject irreverent banter into social conversations à la Paddy Power, Wendys, and Tesco Mobile.
It’s a great feeling to be either the giver or the receiver of a piece of genuine funniness. When something makes us laugh, we feel a gasp of admiration at the audacity, ingenuity, and even the emotional truth of what’s just happened. Why wouldn’t we want that for our brand? And why is it so hard to get it right?
So here are some thoughts about how to manage humour in your marketing in a way that’s both right for your brand and might also even get a few laughs.
What Kind Of Laughs Are You After?
There are many kinds of laugh. The throaty guffaw. The silly giggle. The derisive snort. The big belly laugh. The hysterical paroxysm. The dirty chuckle. Which sort are you after—which suits you best?
The big laughs are also often, potentially, the highest risk and, potentially, most divisive. If you’ve got a laddish brand voice like Paddy Power, which actually employs someone with the job title “head of mischief,” you can probably afford to be a bit hit or miss in the humour stakes.
So along with the laugh, let me put in a plug at this point for the smile. There are many smiles too—the smile of recognition, of affection, identification, surprise, and more. The smile is a response to a style of humour that’s subtler and less confrontational, that’s more observational and less punchline-driven, and what it lacks in fireworks it can make up for in emotional staying power. As the comic novelist Muriel Spark put it: “I have a great desire to make people smile—not laugh, but smile. Laughter is too aggressive. People bare their teeth.”
The likes of Innocent and MailChimp, in its imagery especially, have garnered lots of fans for their much gentler, sillier approach to humour. Innocent had the clever—and funny—idea of applying humorous touches to once-dull areas of collateral like product labels and corporate timelines, just as brands like Firebox have used humour to subvert our expectations of the humble product page. (“Real pets are hard work—you want the Pet Cactus Keyring. It’s cuter, less needy, and it won’t stain the carpet.”)
There are still risks to court—not being funny, running out of steam, annoying people when quirky becomes twee—but the stakes are of a lesser order.
Set Some Guidelines
A well-defined and well-communicated brand voice can go a long way to helping avoid brand banana skins. As I’ve argued here before, a list of rules in a book isn’t enough—you need real examples, lots of them, and an ongoing process with scope to reflect on what your voice and sense of humour should sound like, and what is or isn’t working.
Align Your Humour With Your Brand …
An effective sense of humour should flow from a strong sense of who you are, what you stand for, and how your customers perceive you. Paddy Power’s banter works well for its sports-fixated audience. Innocent’s childish quality sits well with its promise of healthy, additive-free products. The gizmodically sassy Firebox voice is the perfect foil for a range of products that are themselves often very funny.
On the other hand, just how funny do you want your pension adviser to be?
… And With Your Culture
Humour can’t be manufactured, and if you outsource it completely, it won’t truly be yours. If your team has the right environment and mix of personalities to come up with jokes, themes, and ideas among themselves, it’s worth starting here, taking the best stuff, and working outwards to your marcomms.
Some funnies will happen naturally, others you can trigger with requests, memes, brainstorming games. If the lols develop in a professional context, chances are they won’t be too off—with luck, you could tap into your company office environment, or email culture, as a seed-bed for ideas, and have marketing and creative people lift out and develop the things that will work externally.
Put The Right People In Charge Of The Funny …
… And let them get on with the job. It’s a cruel fact of life that some people are simply funnier than others. Humour can’t be done by committee—not if you want it to be actually humorous, anyway—so, ultimately, there has to be an element of trust. You have to hire genuinely funny and creative people, give them a good grounding in how and what to say, and then just allow them to follow their comedy instincts.
Be Prepared To Fail
For humour to work, it often needs to bring into play our sense of non-humour too—our shared understanding of the lines that can’t be crossed and the edge we can teeter along but shouldn’t actually fall off.
All humour plays with transgression in some way—whether that’s saying things we’re not usually allowed to say, even if we think them, or playing with our everyday conventions of what words or thoughts go together. (From the Innocent blog: “An angry penguin can most likely be appeased by a healthy piece of fish, not so much a panda. Don’t get the two confused.”)
If your attempts at humour come over as authentic and confident, people will forgive you the odd slip. But if you take no risks at all, you’ll never be in any danger of ever making anyone laugh.