How to be Funny with Your Brand without Looking Stupid

Sooo… Why Humor? Isn’t that Hard and Invites All Kinds of Criticism?

Yep, but who cares?

[Important to note: I, personally, hate non-sequitur humor (more about that later)].

However, just because you or I don’t like a certain type of humor doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t utilize it for your brand. It doesn’t matter so much what YOU like, but it matters A LOT what your audience likes.

Humor Invites Criticism and That’s Why it Matters

When you do humor right, it performs off the charts. Look at the spectrum of advertising right now. The most successful (cough, Geiko) are relying on humor. But, it’s not just about being funny, it’s about being funny in a specific way that your specific audience identifies with. Also, there’s a certain amount of “daring” that come along with using humor. There’s no guarantee that you won’t be heckled. Being heckled is no big deal as long as you are prepared.

Comedians Hate Him!

Every comedian I’ve ever met hates me because I constantly try to quantify “comedy.” It used to bug me, but now I see how this analytical approach could be an advantage.

They’d prefer that “funny” be a magical state that only those who are “qualified” can achieve. I think of it more as a code I can crack. They see me as a disrupter … a renegade, a turncoat who dispenses all their secrets to those they deem less worthy.

They are correct.

And, that’s why I’m writing this article, to let you know that comedy isn’t a mysterious force conjured by the comedic elite, but, rather, something you can harness to add value to your brand.

Therefore, I’m going to break down a few comedy types and tropes and show you how they can work for you.

It’s Not Self-Deprecation, it’s Self Awareness

Self-Deprecation is one of the most basic and popular forms of comedy. After all, it’s was perfected by one of the greatest comedians who ever lived, Rodney Dangerfield.

It’s less popular among brands, and for good reason. In order to pull it off, you have to face your flaws and detractors. That’s not good from a PR standpoint. For brands? You can simply shift (or “pivot” as business parlance would dictate) to something similar but much more powerful: Self Awareness.

You can be self aware about your perception in the market, and make fun of that, without actually trolling yourself. Are you a startup who’s new to an established vertical? Make fun of the fact that you’re the “brash young upstart making pasty old men in boardrooms nervous.” Are you launching a product that’s never been attempted before? You’re “mad scientists who are thumbing their collective noses at everyone who said it couldn’t be done while you walk away from an explosion in slow-motion like you don’t even care.”

It’s all about embracing your role in whatever industry you’re in, while taking time to make fun of its established conventions.

Absurdity — Non Sequitur Humor Has it’s Place

Let’s talk about absurdity-based humor for a second. Actually, this is a great time bring up (once again) that it’s a type of humor I don’t personally enjoy (I get it, it’s just not my thing).

Remember, what your audience likes is way more important than what I like.

I’m not saying that absurdity-based humor doesn’t work, because it does. Probably the best current example is the work being done for Adult Swim by Tim Heidecker. He started with Tim and Eric, and is now doing the series, Becker, which lampoons action movies (low-budget action movies starring Steven Seagal and the like).

Your best bet if you want to replicate this type of humor is to hire specialists (people who are known for pulling this off). We’ve seen successful campaigns in this realm from (again!) Geico, Skittles, and a few others, and it’s still gaining steam.

Referential — Funny things happen in your day-to-day life. Milk it.

As I mentioned before, comedians hate me because I reveal their secrets. I’m like that hooded magician in the beloved show by a major television network, FOX’s, “Breaking the Magician’s Code: Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed.” I’m going to sing like a canary about how sitcoms secretly come up with their scripts.

The first thing a sitcom show runner (the show runner is the person who wrangles all the writers, directs them, and is responsible for delivering usable scripts for every episode, among lots of other stuff) does is ask all the writers in the room one question:

“What has happened to you lately that’s funny?”

Okay, and maybe another question, “Do you have any funny stories from your past?”

Basically, the show-runner is milking his or her panel of comedy writers. It’s hard to grasp if you’re not involved in the process, but some of the best (if not ALL the best) ideas for jokes in sitcoms come from interactions comedy writers had very recently with people, places, and things they encounter in their everyday life.

Seinfeld was genius at this. Half the jokes in that show were based on normal, everyday interactions their writers had.

This isn’t easy. It requires what I call a “writer’s room” approach. This entails getting anyone who’s a writer (or simply very engaging in conversation) into a room and directing them to share anecdotes that could work for your brand. You should read the room and document the ideas that others find funny. Look out for any jokes that are restrictive (only work within your office). Notice the jokes that have a broader appeal. Gather those up, and you’ve got the basis for a brilliant ad campaign.

One-Liners — Too hard, just ignore this section (or should you?)

I talked about Rodney Dangerfield’s genius regarding self-deprecating humor above, but he was also maybe (probably) the greatest writer of what’s considered “one-liner” jokes. Other masters of this format include Steven Wright and maybe the best comedian of all time who died way too early, the late, great Mitch Hedberg.

The format of one-liner jokes is deceiving. It’s just a setup and punchline. Easy, right? No! It’s the hardest form of comedy. Hemmingway is noted as a being a writer who parlayed the ability to be succinct into historical significance. The best one-liner comedians share the same adherence to brevity.

In other words, this is HIGH LEVEL SHIT. Do not attempt without proper, vetted, world-class contributors. Otherwise you’re going to get clowned by any and everyone who follows you on social channels. I can’t even name a brand who does this well (that’s not true, there’s the genius, Chapin Clark, who runs R/GA’s Twitter account, and, maybe Denny’s? Also, Arby’s)

Topical Humor — There’s a lot going on with culture to lampoon.

AKA — Rapid Fire Relevance

Topical humor is easy to explain. It’s all the jokes in all the monologues on all the late night shows.

The process goes like this: You have a room full of writers who are catching up with the news (“news” could encapsulate actual important shit, entertainment stuff, or even celebrity gossip, just think of it as whatever’s capturing the attention of the the populous) in the morning, writing jokes about it around lunch time, getting approval at exactly 2:00pm, and recording on camera at 4:00pm.

It’s a terrifying schedule, and barely anyone alive can pull this off, but there are writers out there who excel in this environment, and most of them are immediately snatched-up by late night shows (but some fall through the cracks). If you find that type of writer who’s available. Hire immediately.

When you hear about a brand having a “war room” in order to handling communications for something like the Oscars or the the Super Bowl? They’re using a time-tested approach that all late night shows have used since before Carson.

Utilizing What Works for Your Brand (Are You a Dad Brand? Go with Dad Jokes!)

This one is super easy. Are you a dad brand (do you sell belts? ties? wallets?) then go with dad jokes. It doesn’t matter if they’re original, just find what you need and publish it, online.

Is your target audience single female lushes? There’s literally a show about you produced by HBO called Sex and The City! You’re a Samantha!

My point is that, even though it will never be respected by comedy nerds, there’s a place for basic, lowest-common-denominator humor if it works for your brand. Don’t shy away from it, just make sure you have good writers who know the difference and can pinpoint what will really relate to your audience.

The Takeaway

Okay, we’ve talked way too much about “What is funny?” and not enough about, “How is this going to help my brand.” Believe me, I understand.

The fact is, your brand could high-five each other and declare yourselves an “EXPERT” at what’s considered funny. You could hire really expensive consultants to act on your direction, and produce a really expensive one-minute long comedy video that you all like. You could then release it out to the public with a crap-load of public relations deals, paid media, and internal fanfare, but still …

It could fall short. It could be ignored.

That’s why you have to approach humor with no fear and a serious point of view. You need to hire established experts and/or talented newcomers to ensure that your brand’s particular type of humor lands with your audience.

Ross Morrison is a social media brand, personality, and advertising consultant. You can reach him at, if you want to talk about using humor for your brand.