Humor in marketing communications is a fascinating, fickle thing. Used recklessly, it can backfire, cross a line, or even cause a lawsuit. Used wisely, it can help land that new contract, entice customers to a website and bring a welcome dose of humanity to an otherwise dull presentation.
The most effective humor in business communication stems from an existing framework and set of guiding principles to ensure it reflects and fuels a company’s brand. Your organization probably has a style guide that specifies how to use the company logo or defines its tone and personality – think of these principles as part of your humor style guide.
At minimum, a company humor guide should include two critical components:
- a definition of your brand’s style of humor
- the parameters of your humor compass
Define your brand’s style of humor
Ask anyone who works at Company Z, and they will tell you both Dan and Flo are hilarious. Interestingly, how these two get their laughs couldn’t be more different. Dan’s sense of humor is under his breath and deadpan while Flo is flamboyant and way over the top. Just like individuals have their own unique sense of humor, so should company brands. You just need to articulate it. Is your brand’s style self-deprecating? Lighthearted? Over the top? Subtle? The important thing is that you not only have a defined style but that you have only one defined style. After all, wouldn’t it be a little confusing if Deadpan Dan suddenly jumped up on a chair and started singing the latest department update?
Align your humor compass
Poking fun at things is a particular type of humor that can be hilarious in the business world. But there are, of course, things you should never make fun of. You need to establish the “due north” of your humor compass.
Your humor compass should point to the areas that are fair game for getting laughs. For example, it might be okay to poke fun at your corporate culture or even company leadership, but never at employees or customers. There are also the obvious workplace humor taboos such as getting too personal or making fun of anything related to age, gender, sexual orientation, disability or race.
What other things would you consider off limits? Note them in your style guide.
Discover your edge
Once you’ve defined humor style and general direction of your compass, find out how far you can go with your humor. Nothing’s worse than the typical “play it safe” beige-style of the usual corporate attempt at humor. Just like a comedian road-testing her material in front of an audience, you need to discover your edge. You might initially wrestle with something in between “corny” and “too edgy.” Take note of when something gets a huge laugh, lots of shares, or when it falls flat. If possible, reach out to individuals or groups representing your audience and get their feedback. You may never find the perfect balance in your “edge meter,” but you might get close enough to establish guidelines.
Now go out and use it meaningfully
Humor without purpose in business communications can feel like an unnecessary layer and even hinder the original objective – people love the hilarious video, for example, but can’t remember a dang thing about the actual message. When humor is injected directly into the message (versus, “we’re pausing here to be funny”) it complements and strengthens what you’re trying to get across.
Putting it all together
A few years ago, a superstore retail chain released an ad on YouTube that some viewers found hilarious while others felt was completely inappropriate for the store’s family-oriented brand. The company definitely exhibited some edge, but perhaps outside the parameters of their edge meter. Additionally, the ad used a style of humor that people just weren’t used to seeing from this particular brand. As a result, they received bad press and negative feedback from their shoppers.
On the other hand, I’ll never forget the first time I flew on a certain airline and the flight attendant gave us the standard safety speech as we were pulling away from the gate. You know how passengers rarely pay attention to these speeches (or at least pretend not to)? Well, this particular flight attendant had everyone’s rapt attention. He presented all the same information – seat cushion as flotation device, put your own oxygen mask on first, no smoking in lavatories – but turned the usually dry presentation into a comedy monologue, never straying too far from the important content, but having just enough edge to create a fun, festive atmosphere amongst an otherwise tough crowd. He clearly understood the direction of the company’s humor compass and the style of humor totally exemplified the brand.
Good humor can be the perfect antidote to an intense situation. It can be the difference between a message that is read once and deleted versus a phenomenon that spreads widely across social media. It can be the single reason why a company’s brand is so well loved. And when style, compass, edge, and purpose are all in sync, business humor can be a funny and beautiful thing.