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Geeez, I thought recently, can watching the news get any more depressing? As I pondered this, I found myself considering the effects of tension, like when I was a kid and attended my grandfather’s funeral, my first experience of such an event. 

I remember watching the adults I knew so well behaving so strangely as they fussed about waiting to climb into the big black limos. Awkward, lost in their own thoughts, the strain visibly etched on their faces. Then I saw the undertaker lean into the group and quietly say something. Suddenly, everyone was laughing. Loudly. Far too loudly, I thought. But the tension was broken and they physically relaxed. 

I saw the undertaker lean into the group and quietly say something. Suddenly, everyone was laughing. Loudly. Far too loudly.

The young me was confused, wasn’t in on the joke, and spent my grandfather’s final journey furious with my own family for behaving ‘disrespectfully’, or so I thought. I never did find out what the undertaker said, it was probably nothing much, but the adult me understands the importance of the right humour, especially, in the right moment.

Paddy Power – New Normal? Same Old Football

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Above: Paddy Power uses irreverent humour as part of its advertising approach.

The impact of humour 

It mends: Humour is our ‘second language’, and is especially useful when we are nervous, or under pressure. We are defined by our emotions and we are programmed to seek out happiness in order to preserve our psychological well-being. Not surprising then, that in the early days of lockdown comedians were the first to explore live-streamed performances. 

Humour is direct: It's not often I quote Leonardo DiCaprio, but his character in Inception said: “Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that’s fully formed - fully understood - sticks, deep in there somewhere”. He was right, and the fastest route through the maze that is our brain is with humour.

[Paddy Power has] one of the best job descriptions, ever: ‘Head of PR & Mischief’. 

Humour opens wallets: For over 30 years UK charity Comic Relief has used the juxtaposition of powerful, human stories and humour as an emotional trigger, raising over £1bn in the process. Mental health charity CALM uses ‘silly but sincere’ humour to help the brand be more approachable and able to combat suicide, the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK.

Humour sells: Irish bookmaker Paddy Power has bet the house on their customer enjoyment of irreverent and cheeky wit. They have one of the best job descriptions, ever: ‘Head of PR & Mischief’. 

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Above: A Smile In The Mind by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart, and Amazon's smiling (or not) logo.

Brands getting in on the joke 

Brands crave deeper connections with their consumers. Wit is often considered the most intelligent of humours. It’s proven to increase cognitive engagement so it’s a ’no brainer’ for brands to use, and for many designers it's the Holy Grail of what we do. A Smile In The Mind by Beryl McAlhone and David Stuart [updated in 2015 by Greg Quinton and Nick Asbury] defined ‘witty thinking’ – humour, irony, playfulness - in design and branding, becoming a seminal book for a generation of designers. 

For many global businesses born out of technology, wit is integral to success.

A lot has changed since its first publication, not least the story of wit itself. Tech and the blurring of boundaries across the media has increased the opportunities to communicate in new ways, the rise in humour mirrors the increasing desire to feel connected, to share a moment that makes us smile, laugh and feel human again.

For many global businesses born out of technology, wit is integral to success. For giants such as Google, Amazon, Apple and Tmall (Alibaba’s version of Amazon), wit has helped to embed their brands into the consciousness of billions of consumers. From the smile with every Amazon box, cheeky cat on Tmall deliveries, the bite on the Apple logo, to the ever-changing Google Doodles, wit humanises the technology behind the brands, and we empathise to such a degree that we can’t imagine a world without them.

Above: Gregg's response to Piers Morgan's vilification of their vegan sausage roll won many admirers, as well as revenue growth.


Money from funny 

Technology brands aren’t the only ones cashing in on the hunger for LOLs. British baker Gregg’s has been the butt of many a joke over the years, but the brand has endeared itself with timely humour across all of its marketing channels, from visuals to customer interaction. Gregg’s combines a self-deprecating wit with a deep understanding of modern British culture making the entire brand a viral opportunity waiting to happen.

Gregg’s combines a self-deprecating wit with a deep understanding of modern British culture.

The launch of a vegan sausage roll in 2019, and Gregg’s quick response to Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan's criticism on Twitter, was a brand building exercise that very few have pulled off successfully. Gregg’s also had the last laugh with a tonne of free publicity, reported 14% growth, and an all-staff bonus which spread the joy further.

Success for smaller brands depends on winning the time of consumers. A product range might be smaller but if the brand personality is big and memorable it can help absorb customers into the brand’s world. That brand experience leads to consideration from won-over consumers and, ultimately, increased sales. Poppi is a small US drinks brand but with a vibrant online personality, with pun-tastic copy, popping visuals and animations, that all help tell the brand’s story.

Success for smaller brands depends on winning the time of consumers.

Oatly and Hippeas were both new concepts and used wit to punch their messages home. While larger brands often use simplicity to cut through the complexity. The UK’s leading multi-channel retailer, Argos, used the packaging as a stage to sell the product benefit for a simple value range.

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Above: Oatly and Argos have used humour in a clever and appealing way.


Humour is natural 

For designers to succeed, tuning into human nature itself must be the priority. A sense of humour is an attractive quality we all admire in others, and if brands can demonstrate a good sense of intelligent humour too, an attraction to - and relationship with - that brand will come. Humour is all about timing - and right now, we need it more than ever!

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