Tom Faust
Tom Faust

Does humor belong in business communications?

If you ask B-to-B marketers, the answer more often than not will 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 B-to-B companies can be forgiven for keeping humor at bay when it comes to marketing messages or managing crises. 

But, at the same time, a mythology has been constructed that B-to-B brands should avoid humor in 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 light hearted—silly even—but reinforce the discounted rates that distinguish the insurer from its competitors.

B-to-B 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 coupledom, 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 B-to-B companies 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 not only of separating itself from the pack, but also makes its message more compelling.

Think about it: B-to-B buyers are constantly inundated by ads and messages with a somber if not funereal tone. Depending on the brand, B-to-B messaging may even try and shame people into purchasing their product to ensure their business’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 b-to-b marketers should think about how they can appeal to the funny bone instead. 

All the product-driven messaging in the world is no match for delivering a message that makes B-to-B buyers laugh and bringing 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, Job One is to 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 if it resonates with them or falls flat. Go backward and determine where the campaign might backfire with the market. 

When ready to allocate 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 like an attempt at humor turning into the communications equivalent of crickets chirping. When talking 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 the company’s overall values. It’s a fine line between humor and inane.
  3. Be (just slightly) self-deprecating. People are drawn to companies that can laugh at themselves and still send a strong message. B-to-B brands are no exception. The message needs to convey the benefits of the products and services being sold, of course. But by taking a humorous approach, companies 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 company, which is the coin of the realm.

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

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Tom Faust is managing director of Stanton, which specializes in b-to-b and financial communications. He can be reached at tfaust@stantonprm.com.