Marketing: Using humor without jeopardizing your brand | Kelly Maloney

What do Old Spice, Brooklake Community Church and Highline Community College have in common? All have successfully used humor and an edgy approach to reach varied audiences without jeopardizing their messaging.

I’ve written a lot about branding and making sure your messaging stays true to your audience's perceptions of your business. Some people get confused by this and think they can’t be creative because they feel to do so would send the wrong message. This is not necessarily the case.

If you’ve had an opportunity to see the new Old Spice commercial (, you see that creativity reigns supreme.

Once considered the cologne of yesteryear, Procter & Gamble’s gamble on Old Spice leverages the comedic talents of its writers and spokesperson to reach out to a younger audience. This hilarious commercial accomplishes a two-fer by speaking directly to women (“...look at your man, now back at me...”) with an underlying message to men.

Humor has also helped them leap over one of the most arduous of all hurdles a marketer can face: Race. No one is looking at the spokesperson thinking, “That commercial is or is not directed at me because of the color of the spokesperson’s skin.”

Retained from the antiquated commercials are the saltwater spray and Old Spice tune we all recognize. Marrying the old with the new serves to bridge the time divide. It is artfully accomplished.

Like many other churches these days, Federal Way’s Brooklake Community Church offers contemporary services delivered in a hip, laid-back way. Members and guests are invited to drink coffee and eat doughnuts in the sanctuary while enjoying the live Christian band. On their Facebook page, they make it clear all are welcome: “We don’t care how you dress or who you voted for.” The collaterals are funky, looking more like a rock band flier than a traditional church program. The billboard in front of the main building has had numerous humorous calls-to-action, one even with an image of a roll of toilet paper, to grab the viewers’ attention.

Does this dilute the spiritual intent of their messaging? No. In fact, it broadens their reach to a younger demographic, a market segment which, by all accounts, is flocking to church in record numbers.

Colleges and universities are also open to all, and administrators are seeing a more diverse campus than ever before. Joining traditional students are the recently laid off, homemakers, emigrants and immigrants, international students, the elderly, those who delayed going to college after high school, and those seeking their GEDs. Added to this are several other layers of complexity. The variety of needs, talents, knowledge, skills and learning abilities are almost as varied as the people themselves. Then there are the different delivery models: In class, distance learning, online and more.

How can any organization with this level of complexity in its audience base keep its messaging clear, concise and intact? It isn’t easy. And, it’s frequently the cause for disagreement, frustration and dissension internally and externally.

My own experience is a good example. While at Highline Community College, I instituted the college’s new brand through a branding campaign that was highly regarded by administrators, faculty, staff, students and the general public. The “Experiences” campaign was a clear opportunity for messaging the college’s brand promise. Easily understood, we reached a multitude of audiences with the message that everyone was welcome and everyone had the opportunity to experience and create experiences of a lifetime through the higher education provided at Highline.

At the same time, we developed and ran an ad campaign designed to reach males between ages 17 and 25. Studies showed a marked decrease in college attendance for this population.

Without splitting from our brand, we developed a funny, edgy campaign that would elicit a response from this group. For the first time, the college utilized Web 2.0 elements, such as YouTube, and created an interactive Web site that linked directly to the college’s main site. We ran print, billboards, transit, TV, radio and in-theater ads.

But, it wasn’t without some heartburn. There were a few people (not many) who believed the edginess was a negative. They felt it portrayed the college in a less-than-stellar light and that it didn’t adhere to the brand.

What they didn’t understand — because they weren’t the target audience — was that the brand was in there. The messaging of what the college was and all it had to offer was the backbone of the campaign. It was simply framed in a way that would get the attention of those it was intended to attract. And, it did. Web hits were at an all-time high and the enrollment rate of young men jumped sizably.

It was successful because the campaign was able to engage the target audience to the point where they took action. They clearly understood the brand promise and that, ultimately, Highline could help them achieve their goals.

What all three organizations realized is that building humor into your messaging doesn’t dilute your audience's perceptions of your brand if you are clear about your brand promise.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 28
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates