Crack a Joke to Build a Brand

Comedian Jim Gaffigan quips in a new commercial about driving a Chrysler Pacifica minivan and retaining his manhood. It’s just one example of how humor has become a staple of contemporary marketing campaigns, especially ones trying to appeal to young adults.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan quips in a new commercial about driving a Chrysler Pacifica minivan and retaining his manhood. It’s just one example of how humor has become a staple of contemporary marketing campaigns, especially ones trying to appeal to young adults.

No joke, comedy can be a brand builder.

Think of comedian Jim Gaffigan and his ads for the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, which are designed to convince young dads that driving a family minivan doesn’t mean you still can’t be cool and yourself.

Humor has become a regular staple in many marketing campaigns, especially ones aimed at younger audiences that are drawn to the sassy comedy of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and satirical commentary in The Onion

Peppercomm, a new York-based marketing company, has made humor a hallmark of its own culture. Its management and account leader training includes instruction in stand-up comedy. Co-founder and CEO Steve Cody said comedy was embedded in training “because it improved presentation, listening and rapport-building skills while creating a unique culture.”

“Many in the industry scoffed, believing PR was a far too serious business for comedy,” Cody added. “Today, we’re routinely hired by clients and non-clients to stage comedy workshops for their employees.” And the firm is retained to inject humor into client marketing campaigns.

Humor can be a double-edged sword. An insensitive joke or an offending aside can damage a brand or at least cause embarrassment. But well-timed comedy can be entertaining and even endearing.

Southwest Airlines is a great example. Flight attendants are well known for stand-up routines involving safety instructions. The iconoclastic airline has hired aspiring actors as flight attendants to help realize its corporate goal of making passengers laugh and feel at ease.

A Southwest Airlines attendant quipped as the plane was taking a long time to taxi to the runway, “You know, we drive halfway and fly the other half.” Another attendant deadpanned, “If you smoke on this airplane, the FAA will fine you $2,000. At those prices, you might as well fly Delta."

Even when humor is a corporate goal, discretion and a sense of timing are essential. Like any form of communication, and especially comedy, you have to know your audience. And your critics. Kmart took a risk with the “I Shipped My Pants” TV ad campaign. The play-on-words humor offended some, but it did help the struggling retailer dramatically drive up its web traffic. Before the ad, no one ever accused Kmart of being edgy.

Dollar Shave Club leapt into business with a YouTube video that was described as “unconventional, outrageous and blunt” – and, of course, funny. The video made the rounds of social media with more than 17 million views and put the startup company on the shaving map.

Charmin marketed toilet paper with a #tweetfromtheseat campaign that encouraged people to share their most innermost inspiration while on the throne in their bathroom.

State Farm peddled insurance with its “Jake from State Farm” ads that were reprised with Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin reprising their Conehead characters from Saturday Night Live. Not to be outdone, Allstate hired Dean Winters, who had a role in 30 Rock, to personify mayhem in a series of laugh-provoking commercials.

Wonderful Pistachios took no chances and hired Stephen Colbert to create buzz for its brand at the 2014 Super Bowl.

It is necessary to hire a production company, and it doesn't hurt to bring in a TV star, to convey a compellingly comedic side of your brand. Marketers who make humor part of messaging say the secret is in authenticity with a little showmanship. Getting a consumer to laugh is one of the best hooks to get them to buy.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.