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Humor in communication. How to make customers laugh without losing credibility

While the slogan “sex sells” prevailed in the marketing industry in the last century, this decade can safely be said to be one to concede that humor works equally well getting consumers to buy. While a witty message is always welcome, it is worth one’s while to seriously consider how best to use it to produce the desired effect.

The recent amazing proliferation of the content that makes people laugh is a natural consequence of the rise of social media. Good jokes passed around by word of mouth have found powerful allies in Twitter and Facebook. A funny post can be shared within a matter of seconds and millions of times too. The key here is the capacity of a good joke to change users’ views on whoever posts it or towards the subject matter of their content, be it persons, products or companies. Well-used humor can make an unknown brand gain immense popularity within minutes. Hence, once you have thought carefully about the type of jokes you will use in marketing communication, you can count on being positively surprised in a big way. Seeing a funny video about your brand entertain “the whole web” can go beyond pleasing. It can give you a massive image boost and drive your sales upwards.

Laughter to earn millions

Several years ago, the management of the US-based company Dollar Shave Club, which makes shavers, found just how well the use of humor can work. Dollar Shave Club was an unknown business classified as a startup. It did not have sufficient funds to finance a spectacular promotional campaign or build distribution channels. In a market dominated by FMCG giants, a virtually unknown producer could only count on being in the tail end of the pecking order. Then came an idea that turned everything around within days with a witty, self-deprecating film summarizing Dollar Shave Club‘s philosophy. Its founder described its mission as he walked around a messy warehouse. As soon as the video was uploaded, the company’s servers choked on the traffic it generated. The website was under siege. Within an hour or so, customers placed giant orders, signing up for the loyalty program, breathing a new life into the company. The joke simply built the business.

Humor breaks the ice

How does funny content work? First of all, a funny story – if it is genuinely funny – connects the people who tell it to each other and pass it around. Amusing content reduces the distance between the sender and the recipient, which is vital for building relationships between a brand and its target group. Humor adds a human touch to communication, it personalizes it, helps build an “I like you” relationship and strengthens attachment. It makes a funny story radiate onto the product itself, if not the entire company. We are talking here about a well-researched projection mechanism. If they post such funny stories on the web, goes the thinking of an amused recipient of a funny message, they must be all right. Humor can also resolve crises. Some time ago, a photo uploaded by a waffle shop on a Łódź street that had been excavated for too long due to road works, became a web hit. To cut the comb of road workers and pressure them to finish the job sooner, the female business owner published photos of herself swimming in a large puddle in a ditch dug in the street in front of her shop. She is depicted on an inflatable pink flamingo, sporting a swimsuit, a drink in her hand. The photo went viral pushing road services to get their act together.

Employees want to feel that they are working with people

A funny video on a company’s day-to-day operation, its employees and their daily struggles, showing “people like you” behind the walls of a corporation, can be part of a great long-term strategy. Such funny stories that are non-fiction and that portray real people, sharing their lives and opinions, can do an amazing job building a positive image in both internal and external communication. Seeing a real employee whom we pass in the hallways can generate positive emotions. Here is an example of how to use self-deprecating humor for effective employee branding. It will probably not come as a surprise that a lot of similar productions from the IT community, also from Poland, have done great on the web. A case in point are the HRejter videos from the team of CodeTwo. The team produced a series of videos showing life in the company and relying primarily on humor, self-irony and self-distance.

A consistently goofy strategy

Some brands have effectively weaponized wit. They now associate with funny stories so strongly that a change of strategy would be a mistake. One readily available example, often cited in marketing texts, comes from the Old Spice cosmetics brand. It shows how irony, self-irony included, can be used to build global popularity and refresh a slightly outmoded image. One could venture to say that if it weren’t for the jokes, the brand would never get across to millions of customers beyond its conservative traditional audience.

Humour communication blog Magdalena Biedrzycka-Doliwa 1

Who gets to be funny?

Can everyone afford such a tone? Of course not. In building B2B relationships, humor can be treacherous. It won’t work for communicating hard economic data, in investor relations or corporate communication. However, these borders are shifting. Or more precisely, what is shifting is the medium we use. One can easily get away with humor on Twitter and Facebook, even from companies known to be very serious.

It would seem that the respectable US space agency NASA should know better and tone down its message. And yet, its Twitter posts and photos “authored” by a rover that writes in the first person, have become a huge hit. They were enthusiastically received and certainly did no harm to the institution itself. That humor has become an effective strategy in industries long considered to be serious, is demonstrated by bank ads. Humor is increasingly used in commercials that promote specific financial products. In Poland, one of the first brands to consistently use jokes for image-building was Lukas Bank (which is no longer in business).

Can you go wrong with this strategy?

You definitely can. No one needs to be told what it means to “blow a joke” – we have all seen that happen. We know intuitively that a joke that is taken too far and used at a wrong time or simply in a wrong way will not resonate with its audience. The same goes for brand communication. If we do not think about who we are addressing, our message may miss the target. If we are overconfident in our own tastes, we risk being the only one to be amused. Careless action may hurt us badly. A joke meant to amuse a customer may become a disaster, ruining our image and becoming a very grim joke indeed for the company. The brands that try to poke fun at social problems run particularly high risks. The audience may be so sensitive that any attempt to make them laugh can backfire. Hyundai learned that lesson the hard way when, in 2013, it encouraged people to buy their cars with the slogan “Our cars are so safe that you can’t even commit suicide in them”. Their ad was criticized by users who pointed out that the unpalatable joke trivializes a serious social problem.

The do’s and don’ts

Needless to say, there are no easy recipes for the effective use of humor. However, here is a few guidelines that I find to apply universally:

  • Don’t poke fun at sensitive social issues associated with minorities, victims and people suffering from health conditions. They may find your joke humiliating.
  • Carefully time the use of humor in your campaign. Airing a funny spot e.g. during a natural disaster is a bad idea.
  • Everyone uses memes for communication these days. Think about whether you really have to get on that particular bandwagon.
  • Don’t trust your sense of humor. Your target audience may not get the joke that makes you laugh.
  • If you have made a video, run it by a group of employees and got an embarrassing silence, admit that your idea won’t fly. Shelve it no matter how much money you have pumped into it.
  • Not everyone has to be funny. Instead of a joke, you might want to consider something more naturally associated with your brand or company.
  • Before running a funny campaign, make a list of all potential harm it may cause on the one hand and the arguments showing that your brand will fit the goofy tone on the other.

As tempting and attractive tool that humor may be as a marketing communication, it is not easy to use. Making people laugh can be a huge challenge. This fact is best known to film comedy producers and increasingly to marketing communications experts.

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