Are You Serious? They Put A Man On The Moon?

Shawn Matthews
Apr 24, 2016 · 5 min read

3 Marketing Lessons We Can Learn From Performance Artist Andy Kaufman

I am a proud 70’s child.

As I kid, I loved watching late night TV in my parent’s room. Usually, it wouldn’t take long until an off-color joke was made by one of the “not for prime-time players,” and my parents would shuffle me off to my room.

I loved Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, and I remember enjoying another show called “Fridays” (with former Seinfeld actor Michael Richards), but my favorite was Saturday Night Live.

One night while watching SNL, I saw a quirky-looking man in a white suit take the stage. I must have been about 7 or 8 at the time, but I remember the moment clear as a bell. The music played, andh the man just stood there in front of the bright red curtain.

This went on for a minute, and then all of a sudden, he started dancing and mouthing the words “here I come to save the day.” My parents and I both laughed, however I had no idea why I was laughing so hard at such a stupid stunt. This crazy guy wasn’t like anyone else I had ever seen on television! In fact, no one had ever seen anyone on television like Andy Kaufman. The world got to witness this man entertain the world through his pure and quirky genius, one stunt at a time.

As I sat there that night, spellbound and in stitches, I began to develop what has turned into a lifelong admiration of one of the most creative and captivating entertainers I have ever observed.

To call Kaufman a comedian doesn’t fully do him justice. He was a performance artist, musician, singer, sword swallower, and entertainer, all rolled into one. Kaufman was often misunderstood, reviled, and loved, all at the same time, but offstage, people described him as highly intelligent, warm, sensitive, and generous.

In addition to making me laugh, observing Kaufman’s life and work gives me some fascinating insights into excellent marketing practices. I would like to share with you three marketing lessons I have learned from this incredible entertainer.

  1. You Will Only Stand Out if You Are Different.

By the mid-seventies, television was often tired and predictable. I will never forget the moment I first saw Andy in a tweed jacket and white trousers stand silently and awkwardly — for a whole minute — on, what is now, one of the most popular shows in the history of American television, Saturday Night Live.

He just stood there, with some music escaping from a small phonograph machine. People just didn’t do that on live TV! Andy Kaufman did, and the world (and a precocious 8-year-old) took notice.

Andy Kaufman rocked the boat of the American comedy scene, and people were drawn to his unique sense of humor and bold awkwardness, for example, he:

  • sat on stage eating ice cream, reacting to a pre-recorded laugh track
  • sang a song called that only contained the words, “I trusted you”
  • played congas while speaking in a made up language of gibberish

We can learn a lot from Kaufman’s originality. How does your brand stand out from your competition? What do you do differently? Why is your brand unique? Groundbreaking? Is your “voice” boring, or does it ring out above the noise? People don’t want run-of-the-mill. Be different, and they will notice.

If you aren’t sure how to go about discovering or developing your brand’s uniqueness, this pop-quiz will help!

2. Be Spontaneous, but Stay True to Your Message.

In Kaufman’s routines, you never knew what would happen. He was the king of humorous unpredictability, or at least it appeared that way. Everything could be a set-up for one show, and everything could be “real” during the next.

He was always in control. He committed to his act and his innovative, randomized approach entertained, captivated, and sometimes disgusted audiences. He kept us on the edge of our seats with eager expectancy to see what was next!

No matter how much Kaufman capitalized on his audience’s eagerness to be surprised, Kaufman never broke character when playing a part. If he was the villain, he was the villain. He was great at creating a character and sticking to it.

These same principles can be applied to marketing. Do you want your customers to eagerly await your next “move,” product or release? Be creatively spontaneous. Surprise them with content or products that they didn’t even realize they wanted!

However, no matter what creative expectancy you establish with your followers, stay true to your message. Make sure each move or innovation you make is rooted in your core principles, values, and mission. This will ensure that your customers will not get confused or disenchanted with your spontaneity.

3. Draw Attention to Your Brand, but Leave Your Customers Feeling Like the World Revolves Around Them

Kaufman respected his audience. He was wildly successful at drawing attention to himself, but never gave the impression that he was doing it in a solely selfish or egotistical sense. He was a master of self-promotion without being self-aggrandizing.

He had a way of making people feel like they were in his living room. He would put on a show much like a 10-year-old kid would, right down to the milk and cookies. He could get audiences to do the bunny hop all the way out the theater door, and then find a way to get everybody back to their seats.

He knew how to give people what they wanted before they knew they wanted it. The end result? He left shows with a big paycheck, and his audience left feeling like they had just had the time of their lives.

Are you approaching your marketing efforts from the self-centered perspective of trying to see how much you can get out of your customers, as opposed to seeing how much you can give or help them? Leave your customers feeling like you are doing it all for their sake.

Ultimately, you are like the entertainer who is there to “give them a good time,” and they are just like the audience that will come back again and again if they know that you are committed to their happiness and well-being!

Although it’s been a few decades since I was first captivated by Andy Kaufman’s humor and quirky aura, I have learned a lot from him along the way. He used a stylized form of product placement and understood how to create amazing stories, and how to amplify them with the medium of the day, broadcast television.

I hope these lessons from Kaufman’s life and work will inspire you as well, as you seek to captivate your audience and leave them begging for more!

Shawn Matthews

I move the needle for startups to billion-dollar brands. Brand strategist. Connector. Problem Solver. Thinker. Mover. Doer.

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