Willy Wonka meme about humor

By Chris Owen, Hoffman UK Director

Def: ‘Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.’

To date, we’ve looked at Tragedy and Rebirth as two of the Seven Basic Plots which are clearly defined narrative structures. As a genre, ‘comedy’ is well recognised, but how can we apply the Plot’s rules in terms of a brand?

Importantly, in the context of the Seven Basic Plots, ‘comedy’ is differentiated from simply ‘humour.’ Comedic material centres on amusing characters and incidents, overcoming adversity in the process. As such, identifying a brand which represents ‘comedy’ can be difficult.

Using comedy in brand marketing

Many brands are funny, but that’s different from being ‘a comedic’ brand, (and there’s certainly varying understanding of what ‘being funny’ involves). The guy from college who introduces himself as being ‘a bit wacky, a funny guy,’ invariably isn’t. If someone has to state their personality, it’s probably untrue or you’d notice anyway.

A comedy is intrinsically satirical, so we need to consider brands that behave as such either towards themselves (an engaging route to wider awareness), or to naysayers. This latter approach can be equally engaging, but is arguably more precarious — it could be easy to stray into mockery. In this regard, the ‘pick your battles’ is very apposite; and once picked, execute them flawlessly.

One example of using comedy in brand marketing is Greggs, a cheap high street bakery in the UK that’s a favourite among the hungover, (it’s no Fortnum and Mason, that’s for sure). I struggle to think of something in Greggs that you use cutlery to eat, if this helps.

In January 2019, the chain launched its vegan sausage roll; a paradoxical product that arguably sits within ‘adversity’ in and of itself.

Image of a Greggs sausage roll

Its launch created a swathe of intrigue, which led to almost blanket national media coverage. Even the Financial Times covered it, citing the brand’s smart advertising.

Throughout, Greggs’ social channels took a consistently satirical approach. The inevitable sneer from Piers Morgan (a controversial ex-tabloid editor and breakfast TV presenter who ‘divides opinion’ to put it politely), drew a masterclass in smack-downs, and drove over 20k retweets — not bad for a bakery.

Screenshot of Piers Morgan tweet

Morgan subsequently tried the roll live on his breakfast TV show, nearly vomiting in the process — an act which given his reputation helped drive even more awareness.

It was such a success — in no small part due to the huge media and social awareness raised by the tone of its launch — that in 2020 employees shared a £7m windfall in bonuses after Greggs enjoyed a ‘phenomenal year,’ fuelled by the vegan sausage roll.

Reaching your brand’s customers with comedy

Greggs has proved that for brands adopting the comedy approach can work, not least in overcoming the adversity of launching a whole new product, which at first glance seems a total paradox. In doing so, there’s a need to accept that satire won’t work with everyone and may irritate, alienate others. As such, it’s potentially a high-risk tactic that not all brands would be comfortable adopting — moderation is safer and less likely to put a consumer’s nose out of joint.

But the word ‘consumer’ is exactly where the key distinction lies in why satire can work in brand marketing. As Abraham Lincoln famously put it, ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’ In understanding this, a comedic approach can become a filter for defining who your audience is — switching ‘consumer’ to ‘customer.’ As a brand, don’t try and engage ‘the consumer’ when what you mean is engaging ‘the customer.’

In Greggs’ instance, there are people who will dislike the tone and humour of its Twitter feed and the brand tone of voice. Fine, they’re not your customer. Those who like a satirical approach and find the brand funny are those who will try what you launch, they’ll be intrigued. These people are your customer.

Successful comedy is a fine line. But deployed well, it can act as a defining strategy in identifying who your audience is and getting their attention. Ultimately, it’s about knowing who your audience is (and should be), and what they find funny, and use comedy to reflect this. 

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