Don’t laugh—humor can be a useful marketing tool

Some view corporate levity as too risky or unprofessional, but with the right approach it can open doors to new opportunities. Follow these guidelines for getting a laugh while making a sale.

Does humor belong in business communications?

If you ask marketers, the answer will often be “no way,” or it’s “too risky.”

Quel dommage.

Using comedy for branding may alienate some customers, partners and/or vendors and spark more trouble than it’s worth, so B2B companies can be forgiven for keeping humor at bay when it comes to marketing messages or crisis management.

But at the same time, a myth has evolved that B2B brands should avoid humor in all their marketing efforts.

The reality suggests otherwise.

Some of the most highly regulated and closely scrutinized industries also produce some of the most humorous marketing campaigns—without forfeiting their overall message.

Exhibit A: the insurance industry.

Progressive Corp., which offers business insurance policies, has relied on Flo, a fictional character, to get the word out about the company for a decade. Progressive’s ads are lighthearted—silly even—but they reinforce the discounted rates that distinguish the insurer from its competitors.

B2B giant Cisco Systems also embraces humor to get its message out.

Take Cisco’s marketing campaign designed to promote one of its computer servers. Using all the tropes of romance, Cisco developed the campaign to coincide with Valentine’s Day.

The ad features still shots of young couples, as a voiceover intones: “How many ways can a man tell his sweetheart, ‘I love you’?” Until now, the answer was three: He could buy her expensive diamonds; he could take her on a tropical vacation; or he could carve his initials into a tree, then carve a heart, then carve her initials.

“But now, he can give her the ultimate expression of his everlasting affection—the Cisco ASR 9000. Because nothing says ‘Forever’ like up to 6.4 terabytes per second, nothing says ‘Commitment’ like up to 400 GPS per slot and nothing says, ‘I love you’ like six times the Mobile Mac Haul capacity…”

The Cisco ad is illustrative for B2B organizations and their PR/marketing agencies. The ad touts the major benefits of the product, uses keywords and never loses sight of brand value or customers’ needs.

By using humor to drive the message, Cisco not only does an effective job of separating itself from the pack, but also makes its message more compelling.

Think about it: B2B buyers are constantly inundated by ads and messages with a somber if not funereal tone. Depending on the brand, B2B messaging may even try and shame people into purchasing their product to ensure their organization’s future.

There’s only so much serious information people can take before their eyes start to glaze over.

As traditional methods of communicating with business customers are upended, perhaps B2B marketers should think about how they can appeal to the funny bone instead.

All the product-driven marketing in the world is no match for delivering a message that makes B2B buyers laugh and brings some levity to their hectic schedules. They’ll remember a funny message the next time their purchasing cycle begins anew.

However, before taking this step, make sure the brand of humor syncs up with brand attributes. It’s also important that employees are on board with the effort, because they’re the ones who will be asked about it—and may have to defend it.

Run a beta campaign by some media-savvy employees and see whether it resonates with them or falls flat. Go backward and determine where the campaign might backfire with the market.

When you’re ready to allocate a budget for a humorous campaign, brand managers should also keep these three tips in mind:

  1. Make sure the audience shares in the humor. There’s nothing more embarrassing than an attempt at humor turning into the communications equivalent of crickets chirping. When taking a humorous approach to marketing, brainstorm carefully. Bring in top sales reps to get a sharper sense of what makes customers tick. Don’t get too far afield from your audience. Make sure the humor deployed doesn’t turn into a head-scratcher for customers. The audience needs to be in on the joke.
  2. Don’t get too edgy. In order to work effectively, the humor deployed in communications must harmonize with the audience and connect with your organization’s overall values. It’s a fine line between humorous and inane.
  3. Be (just slightly) self-deprecating. People are drawn to businesses that can laugh at themselves and still send a strong message. B2B brands are no exception. The message has to convey the benefits of the products and services being sold, of course. By taking a humorous approach, though, organizations demonstrate to consumers that they are good people to work with and are not all about the sale. That makes people feel good when they think about your organization, which is the coin of the realm.

By taking humor more seriously, B2B marketers have a better shot at cutting through the growing clutter online and connecting more closely with customers and prospects who are less and less beholden to individual organizations. Don’t laugh. It works.

Tom Faust is managing director of Stanton, which specializes in B2B and financial communications. A version of this post first appeared on O’Dwyer’s .

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