I grew up in a family which loved rules. A board game could be (and often was) interrupted for ages while we debated the ins and outs of any particular rule. Does pointing really count as an illegal gesture? Better check the official guidelines, guys, or this game can’t continue! Otherwise we’ll all have a guilty conscience and what fun is that?
There was a right way of doing things, that’s for sure. But thankfully, wherever codes of operation exist, so does rebellion. Our resistance of choice? Humour. Beautiful, disruptive humour. And with that, I guess you could say a comedian was born. Well first a psychotherapist, then a comedian. An apt illustration of my family’s dance between rule following and rule breaking I suppose (but that’s just the therapist in me talking).
At the risk of sounding self-important (occupational hazard), comedians are still some of the boldest disruptors of any industry. It’s our job to push boundaries, push buttons, and get people to think about the world through the lens of laughter. It could be argued we are also natural marketers – all due respect to the late great Bill Hicks on this one – but we must build our own brand, compete in a difficult market, and try to disrupt the industry with something refreshing and different in order to be heard.
When I think of brands which have made an impact on me over the years, it’s definitely the ones that used humour in their marketing campaigns, and used it well. Dollar Shave Club is of course a trailblazer in this area – but also Specsavers, and brands like Firebox with their quirky and boldly swear-laden products. Also Aviation Gin, which has recently blown up thanks to its newest investor, Ryan Reynolds, who like his gin is impeccably dry. Granted, I’d buy a pet rat with bubonic plague from Reynolds, but still: the humour used in these campaigns definitely makes them stand out from the pack. As a consumer it makes me think: here’s a confident brand, and wow – they’re relatable and human. Yes please.
So why doesn’t every brand use humour in its marketing? Well, it’s for the same reason your Uncle Greg’s jokes don’t land at Christmas no matter how drunk everyone is: humour is one of the hardest things to pull off. Back to that little dance between rule following and rule breaking: at our core we feel comfortable with rules and we have to trust anyone who dares break them before we can allow ourselves to laugh. A badly landed joke at a comedy club is painful; a badly landed humour campaign equally so, and both will hurt the brand (and in either case, possibly the ego to boot).
There’s a few golden rules I’ve tried to follow as a comedian and writer, and I think they’re just as applicable to using humour in marketing as part of your brand:
1. Know your audience.
When a comedian steps on stage, they’ve got a set of jokes prepared, but they’re also (hopefully) prepared to improvise and switch things up if the jokes aren’t landing. They’ve got to be flexible and play to the crowd as they read them (that is, until they get so big that the crowds come to them).
When US beer label Coors decided to shake up its brand and use Jean Claude Van Damme playing an ironic version of himself in their ads, they knew their target market (people who don’t drink posh beer but love a good time) would go for it – as well as people who maybe wouldn’t have given Coors the time of day before.
As a brand, you’ve got to play your audience accordingly: if you target an older demographic, don’t try to use humour that would make your grandmother confused and/or offended. If you’re targeting a young demographic don’t be your Uncle Greg at Christmas making of fool of himself.* Know the rules of your industry before you break them – and don’t use humour unless you know your audience are the right target for it.
* Apologies to any genuinely hilarious Uncle Gregs out there.
2. Punch up – or at yourself.
Humour takes many forms, and I’m as partial to the well-crafted scathing variety as anyone else – but only so long as its target is something powerful and worthy of lampooning. The balance between self-deprecation and earned critique of someone or something is delicate in comedy. If you’re going to critique your competitors, punch up to the big guys (imagine if retail giant Walmart made light of all the independents they’ve put out of business – that’s a Bernard Manning no-no). And some careful self deprecating, playful humour about your industry can go a long way – as long as you don’t inadvertently do yourself down!
3. Don’t lose sight of your message.
Though some comedians would argue that there doesn’t need to be a message in comedy, it’s the comedians with a strong angle who stand out. That message doesn’t have to be a lofty one – it can be as simple as “I feel like an idiot and I’m pretending to be an adult” (yep, that’s mine) – but structuring your humour around it will give it impact. A marketing campaign can use humour well but lose sight of its message – there are dozens of really funny adverts I’ve seen over the years but I couldn’t tell you what the product was – so make sure your core message is leading the way.
Humour is powerful and effective – if you know how to break the rules and use it as a disruptor. As Monica once said on Friends, “rules help control the fun.”
Taylor is an Upmarketry network partner and Comedian, Writer and Podcaster.