Some marketers are funny to the core—like, most obviously, media brands from Comedy Central to The Onion.
Other marketers have adopted humor as a strategy to add fresh energy to a stodgy brand—like Old Spice, which took a product line long associated with older men (dads in particular) and repositioned it to appeal to millennials through goofy, absurdist commercials.
Still other marketers use humor selectively—like Burger King, which does plenty of straightforward advertising to get the word out about its menu items and promotions, but also just took home aGrand Prix for Media at Cannes for its quirky “McWhopper” campaign, in which it took out newspaper ads to call attention to a silly open letter it wrote to its rival McDonald’s to propose the creation of a combination Whopper and Big Mac (“one delicious, peace-loving burger”).
But some brands are funny without necessarily knowing they’re funny. Is your brand in that category?
As consumers have migrated to visually driven social platforms including Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat—and as photo sharing has exploded on Facebook and Twitter—a lot of the humorous consumer commentary about brands these days takes place via images, but 80% of those images don’t have any identifying hashtags or text that enable brands to find them. As a result, marketers that use only text-centric social listening tools are likely missing a lot of the conversation surrounding their products.
Consider, for instance, Mr. Clean, the cleaning product that Procter & Gamble began advertising on television in 1958. As has happened with a lot of products from that more innocent time, Mr. Clean has taken on both a nostalgic aura—it’s a brand that’s been a trusted part of American households for nearly six decades—and a certain camp appeal.
On Tumblr, a widely shared grid of photos (sometimes hashtagged #SixDegreesofSeparation) suggests that Mr. Clean, Patrick Stewart, Bruce Willis, Michael Chiklis and Voldemort are all related. On Twitter, a user @PJ_Peterson recently showed a photo of his clean-shaven skull along with a recounting of the conversation that led to his new look: “Barber: ‘What you want?’ Me: ‘Hit me up with that Mr. Clean.’ Barber: ‘Say no more.’”
Newer brands are subject to playful tweaking by consumers, too. Diet Coke, introduced in 1982, has been the subject of photoshopped images of Diet Coke with Bacon—a theoretical extension along the lines of Diet Coke with Lemon—for years, and shots of the supposed pork-flavored low-calorie cola still pop up reliably on social media to this day. (A blog calledBacon Today actually put the rumor of the product’s existence to rest, getting a quote from a Coca-Cola Company spokesman: “To answer your question, no, there is no Diet Coke with Bacon.”) In this case, the humor might be directed as much at wishful-thinking, bacon-obsessed consumers as the brand.
Then again, consider Under Armour, which recently introduced its “Chef Curry” lowtop sneaker in collaboration with NBA star Steph Curry. The mostly white shoe is surprisingly simple and arguably old-fashioned in design, leading to a flood of social media posts showing the sneaker and suggesting new branding—everything fromKirkland Signatures to Mall Walkers. Keep in mind that some observers have suggested that there’s an “ugly shoe” trend in the marketplace and that UA and Curry know exactly what they’re doing.
The trick for brands is to listen carefully to the social media—both text-centric and visually driven—surrounding their products. And to not act defensively when consumers find humor where your marketing team least expected it. As Bentley University marketing professor Lan Xia, summing up her research in the area of “brand personality,” puts in the International Journal of Electronic Commerce, “When a brand refuses to listen to its customers and acts defensively, it signals the brand’s arrogance and disrespect to its customers.”
Sometimes the best strategy is to roll with the comedy. It’s worth noting thatSteph Curry declared that “I love the nicknames” for his shoe that social media jokesters have come up with. Plus, as Ad Age reported in mid-June,the Chef Curry sneakers are actually selling well.
If your consumers are enjoying themselves and still buying your product, maybe it doesn’t matter who gets the last laugh.