Here’s an idea worth stealing: Self-deprecating humor can unlock new marketing opportunities, especially for industries that take themselves the most seriously.
Have you noticed that marketing has become an incredibly humorless business? In 2007, nine of the top 10 ads in USA Today’s Super Bowl rankings were comedic. Ten years later, it was just five. Our industry’s long-standing predilection for humor is being replaced by a cavalcade of purpose-driven campaigns taking on the Big Issues. The marketing we now revere, like State Street’s “Fearless Girl,” Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad or pretty much anything by Dove, is either serious and identity-driven or saccharine and heartwarming. While they're certainly compelling, they’re all decidedly unfunny.
The traditional content marketing establishment seems not to have considered humor a part of its core offering in the first place. An informative article about a relevant topic may be useful to the audience, but is it sacrilegious to think it could also be funny?
One would think it could work. After all, humor is trending in popular culture. There are more comedies on cable now than ever. Comedy club revenues are growing. Netflix has more comedy specials than customers at this point. It’s that marketing leaders don’t think they can be funny anymore.
The chances of seriously offending a group of people and finding yourself issuing a massive public apology are higher than ever. Some comedians have stopped playing college campuses because they feel students are too easily offended now. Social media should be a great place for brands to crack a joke, but it’s often just not worth the risk.
But there is one thing you can always joke about. One way to get all the benefits of humor without the risks. One person you can make fun of who will never get offended, and who will actually make you look super authentic. Yourself.
There’s a reason honesty and self-criticism are so funny: It makes other people feel better, engenders empathy and lets you benignly confront your insecurities.
Could self-deprecating humor lead to good content for any brand? To test our theory that it can, we’ll choose the three categories that take themselves the most seriously and find the funny: finance, luxury and B2B solutions.
Making Finance Funny
The first rule of funny is to hunt for the obvious tension. Find that widely held perception of your brand or your category that’s also kind of embarrassing, and rather than examining it through an earnest lens, turn it into self-deprecating humor.
For financial institutions, this is easy. The obvious tension pertains to trust. For decades, these brands have projected an air of conscientiousness, with imagery of large rocks, columns, buildings and whales. “Give us your wealth, and we’ll use our wisdom and foresight to steer it through the storm.” But of course, consumers don’t trust these brands at all. According to Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer, only 57 percent of Americans have trust in financial services companies.
If showing how serious you are hasn’t changed consumer perception, maybe it’s time for a different approach.
Wouldn’t it be surprising, for example, for consumers to see how boring financial planning actually is? It’s not a marble boardroom full of PhDs gambling with your wealth. It’s a couple of smart but very normal people making unheroic, long-term decisions. Poke fun at your organization’s inability to make rash decisions. Show how not swashbuckling or impulsive your financial planners are. Subvert the dominant trend report paradigm: things you haven’t figured out yet. Trends you were wrong about. Nobody thinks you’re prophets anyway — at least show them that you have a soul.
How to Laugh About Luxury Goods
Let’s move on to luxury goods, one of the most frequently spoofed corners of the marketing world, with its sepia tones, gravelly voices and disaffected models. A luxury is by definition unnecessary, so why is luxury so often portrayed as desperately vital?
The obvious tension: Luxury goods are to be taken very seriously, even though they’re considered frivolous or self-indulgent (at best) and wholly unattainable (at worst) by so many. No wonder luxury brands have struggled to appeal to millennials, who value authenticity over pretense. How about a luxury apparel brand portraying just how unimportant that gorgeous handbag really is in the greater scheme of things, but how it’s still so damn beautiful you’ll love it anyway?
How about a watch brand that makes light of the lifestyle insinuations its product makes: “Perfect for watching the regatta, or any of the things you might actually do.” Why are there no luxury hotel brands laughing about how over the top their service is? It’s not that your staff is stiff and professional; it’s that they’re willing to go to comical lengths to make customers happy.
The Silly Side of B2B Solutions
On to the least funny category of them all: B2B solutions. Classically, the rap on these brands is that they act as if the specific solution they offer solves the biggest problem in their target’s life; that people wake up worrying about cloud-based workflow solutions, when in reality their solution is obscure and humorously narrow. These brands tend to forget that B2B targets are still humans with personal lives, not task-completing business automatons.
So, let’s see some brands introduce humor into this space by facing the fact that their products are indeed obscure, one-dimensional and actually not that important in their customers’ lives overall. “Our digital marketing platform has all the tools you’ll need to never have to talk about digital marketing platforms again.” Have fun with the fact that you can really only do one thing well — “Our e-commerce integrations are dynamic and effective. Our social lives, not so much.” There’s a great opportunity for some brands to play the role of bs-caller on the buzzwords and jargon in their category: how about building a game that lets players destroy common buzzwords, brick by brick. The drier your category is, the more you stand to gain by causing a chuckle.
At the very least, use humor as a strategic tool internally. If you can find the humor, you can find the insight. Test it out on one small piece of content or a social media post. See how people respond. Brands always want to talk about themselves. Do it with a twinge of humor, and you might find people actually willing to listen.