Laughter Is the Shortest Distance Between Brand and Customer

Five ways to use humor to build a brand.

Building your brand on humor is no laughing matter. In fact, this choice can be a high-risk (but high-reward) branding option. Laughter is the obvious outcome, but humor also creates a positive emotional relationship between a brand and its customers. Humor can cut through the clutter and go viral in seconds—because funny attracts eyeballs. People reward clever, creative and witty humor by watching and sharing it. Humor can revitalize an old offer or make an ordinary product extraordinary overnight—and it can make you into a brand that people want to be associated with.


Funny Theory

I quickly found that looking for the secret sauce of what makes things funny wasn’t much fun at all. E.B. White had it right when he mused that “analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

Frog or no frog, Dr. Peter McGraw and Joel Warner wrote the book The Humor Code. In the book, they developed the Benign Violation Theory, which states that two simultaneous conditions are needed to make something funny. First, it must violate the way we think the world should work and second, it must be benign enough that it does so in a way that’s not threatening. This is the fine line of what is funny or in downright bad taste.

A master of Benign Violation is comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who has the innate talent of pointing out outrageous funny things (violation) in everyday life (benign). My favorite example is the episode where Mr. Pitt eats a Snickers bar with a knife and fork.

Laughing Matters

Jack Schafer, Ph.D., a writer for Psychology Today, says “laughter releases endorphins, which make us feel good about ourselves and others. This good feeling creates a bond between two people and imbues a sense of togetherness.” Brands that incorporate humor in their branding strategy can increase their likeability.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any significant research to support this claim, except to say that intrinsically we all do business and build relationships with people we like. Rohit Bhargava, author of Likeonomics, says we are living in a world where brand believability is very low. Consumers are bombarded daily with corporate speak, half-truths, or biased messages. For the sake of survival, they are ambivalent or negative to these messages as a default—Bhargava calls this the “likeability gap.” To bridge this gap, brands must build trust, be relevant and be unselfish in a timely and simple fashion. Doing something different, like using humor, can make a brand relevant and can create significant impact in a world of sameness and brand parity.


Funny Attractions

Humor generates big dollars in the entertainment industry. From 1995 to 2017, Statista movie box office revenue data shows that the comedy genre rakes in a total of $42 billion, second only to adventure movies. Comedy has continued to grow over recent years, with over 17.6 million people visiting a comedy club in 2016. That’s an increase of 10 percent since 2014! A contributing factor to this influx is the mass broadcasting of comedy specials and routines on Netflix and YouTube (where comedy is the 5th biggest channel), and popular live events like Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival, that attracts over two million spectators each year. The rise in comedy popularity is particularly true for younger viewers—according to a recent study by NAPTE/Content First and the Consumer Electronics Association, comedy is the top genre watched regularly by 74 percent of Millennials (vs. 70 percent for Gen Xers, and 68 percent for Boomers).

The attractiveness of humor also applies to marketing. A quarter of television commercials are classified as humorous and, of the top 10 most-watched ads of 2017 on YouTube, four of them are based on humor.


Brand Attractions

The main reason humor is used to build a brand is two-fold: humor can attract attention quickly and can enhance brand likability overnight. But this doesn’t guarantee success. Ace Metrix conducted an extensive research study on the Impact of Humor in Advertisements (2012), and found that the “keys to effectiveness are relevance and information.”

There are five primary ways humor can be used to build a brand:

1. Bonding

Humor can be used to bring together like-minded people under a halo of fun. Humor can bring out the unique club mentality present in celebration, without the fear of elitism. Coca-Cola, for example, is a mastermind at creating a warm and funny connection with their consumers. It must be all that sugar they put into the drink!

As well as conveying emotional information about oneself, laughter elicits similar emotions in others and therefore serves a bonding function. If laughter serves a social bonding function, it should be no surprise that it also serves to increase a person or brand’s likability.


2. Releasing Tension

Humor can be an easy way to address a difficult conversation or sensitive subject matter like insurance, banking, or personal hygiene. Somehow, the toilet tickles many-a-brand’s funny bone. Humor, when used with sensitivity, can be very successful, and even potty humor has a time and place (most likely in a boy’s locker room).

GEICO is a great example of taking a sensitive subject (insurance) and transforming it into must-watch TV ads. Then there is Aflac’s famous quacky and wacky duck, who helped to elevate the Aflac brand to one of the top 25 brands in 2015, based on the annual SMB Insights Study conducted by The Business Journals.

3. Attraction

How do you take a 70-year brand heritage of Old Spice and make it relevant to not only young men, but also to the women who purchase products for the men in their lives? Women are responsible for over 50% of body wash sales, so hooking them as a demographic is vital. Eric Baldwin, Executive  Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy (the agency behind the Old Spice brand transformation) said: “When you are saying ‘Listen to us tell you about body wash and deodorant and we will entertain you,’ you’d better make sure that is exactly what you do: entertain the hell out of them.” And that is exactly what Old Spice has been doing since “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” was debuted in 2010.

4. Rivals

How does the little brand take on Goliath who has more market share, more brand awareness, more brand recognition, and deep pockets to keep it that way? Create a cult phenomenon using humor! It’s easier said than done, but many brands have succeeded. Humor can also be used to avert potential detractors.

If used correctly, humor can be a clever and original way to communicate tons of information in a playful and entertaining matter. One great example is the Dollar Shave Club.

5. Entertainment

For those brands looking to capture younger audiences, it’s all about entertaining and keeping those attention-deficit consumers engrossed in nonsensical brand stories. In a study How Humor in Advertising Works by Prof. Dr. Martin Eisend at the Universitat Viadrina Frankfurt (2011), it is cited that humor may help overcome weaknesses in advertising messages. Skittles is a great example of this type of brand humor in its Taste the Rainbow commercials, of which I am not their target audience (thank heavens!).

Last Laugh

If you want to wrap your brand with humor, you need to understand what type of humor fits your brand. Are you looking for the silly giggle like a school kid? The nervous and uncomfortable chuckle? The derisive snort? The joyous cackle? The big contagious hearty belly laugh? Or the soft, suppressed chortle?

The bigger the laughter, the higher the risk and the higher the potential of being divisive, but sometimes the reward is worth that risk. Sometimes, though, being too funny can have the opposite effect than you intend. There is always a brand that crosses the line and takes funny to a non-benign place. There are also those brands that are so funny and outrageous that the consumer only remembers the joke but has no idea who or what the brand was. Robin Evans, in his book Production and Creativity in Advertising, coined the phrase “the vampire effect,” where the humor or spokesperson overshadows the brand message. The moral of this story is to keep your humor on message, to help build up instead of detracting from your brand.

Here is a Wrigley commercial that crossed the benign line, to the point that it was taken off air because of so many complaints.


Final Punchline

A brand’s sense of humor should come from a strong sense of who the brand is, what it stands for, and how their customers perceive it—both today and into the future. If your brand humor comes across as authentic and genuine, people will follow you and will give some leeway to screw up. In today’s world of speed, personalization and relevance humor can cut corners in production values and can capture large audiences, even if your products are boring. Humor is also about timing and context as opposed to polish. If you take no risks at all, you’ll never be in any danger of ever making anyone laugh.


The headline to this article is an adaptation from the original quote “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people” by Danish comedian Victor Borge (1909-2000).


Are You Good Enough to Be a Personal Brand?

Do human brands exist? If you are a celebrity or famous are you a brand by default? Not necessarily, I am talking about humans having the same effect on customers as product and service brands. David Ogilvy was one of the first to describe a brand as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” A brand is really the perception that is held in the mind of customers about your product’s quality and attributes based on factual (design, colour, experience, consistency) and emotional (values, promise, leader, passion) characteristics. Sometimes defining a product brand is like describing a person.


name-tag my brand


Is this a person or a brand? Clean-cut but trendy, easy-going and likes to have fun, loves music and photography, comes across as friendly, bright, cool and very simple to get to know. Did I describe you or Apple?


Brands have personalities, they possess character and they can stand for something.


Celebrity Brands


The difference when you’re famous or a celebrity is about reach and frequency – having a widespread reputation and awareness. Being a human brand is about making a connection with your customer that they own. Their connection isn’t about you, its more about what you give them. Some celebrities turn into brands by using their fame and uniqueness by consciously packaging their image into a brand. Good examples are Oprah Winfrey and Paris Hilton.




In 1976, Oprah worked in Baltimore as co-anchor of the six o’clock news (WJZ-TV). By 2000, Oprah Winfrey had built a multimillionaire empire as the producer and host of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’ Through that show, she built and refined her distinctive personal brand. A brand that now includes a book club, magazine, charitable foundation, and multimedia businesses, which also includes the Oprah Winfrey Network.


Well you might think that Paris Hilton may not look very smart. She took her humble beginning as a hotel heiress and socialite at the age of 22 started to build a brand as a media personality, a model, a recording artist, a book author, and an actress. Today, Paris Hilton has a billion dollar business with her own line of clothing and perfumes.


Human Brands


Don’t confuse celebrities who endorse product brands or act as a spokesperson for brands as human brands, most are just famous people sharing their awareness and winning trait. A number of these people are very successful athletes like Tiger Woods (Nike), David Beckham (H&M underwear) and Serena Williams (Wilson & Gatorade). Be careful when you saddle-up your brand to a celebrity. Remember Lance Armstrong and Nike or O.J. Simpson and Hertz. Even Tiger Woods was problematic, with his personal antics off the golf course.




Another easy way to become a human brand is by being the founder of a very strong corporate brand, such as Donald Trump with the Trump Organization, Richard Branson with the Virgin Group and Hugh Hefner with Playboy Enterprises. All three have very distinct and memorable personalities. Each is a living image of their company brand and brand values. Each of them has carefully crafted their unique brand image. Donald Trump, the successful hard-nosed businessman and leading Republican nominee, with his controversial viewpoint and long batch of hair. The fun and risk-taking Richard Branson with his long blond locks of hair, casual attire (never with a tie), and headline making stories of his latest attempt to break a world-record. But the most iconic of the three has to be Hugh Hefner who lived the Playboy brand in the Playboy mansion – always in his signature silk pajamas, robe and pipe, and his messy bedroom hair.


Can you be a human brand without being a celebrity or an owner of a successful business? History would tell us, yes – such as: Jesus Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, William Shakespeare, Mozart and Beethoven. They changed history and took civilization to a new depth. For some of us this might be too aspirational to try to build a similar brand.


Sustained Presence


Powerful human brands generally have sustained a presence over time. The underlining commonality in all the human brand examples shared is their power to influence. As Tom Peters explains, “one of the things that attracts us to certain brands is the power they project. As a consumer, you want to associate with brands whose powerful presence creates a halo effect that rubs off on you.”


With the introduction of digital mass and social media tools we all have the ability to influence via the internet. All you have to do is build a brand following based on the same principals of building a product brand. What will define success will be your ability to give your audience something of value that they will want to own – not just once but over time.


Managing Your Identity and Perception


Branding is the process of managing identity and perception. If you want to build a personal brand you must form a memorable presence through your physical persona combined with your digital manifestation (a book would also help to define who you are or how you think or writing a blog or an article on LinkedIn isn’t a bad idea).


To help you get started, here are some questions you need to answer:

  • What does your brand stand for?
  • What is your unique promise?
  • What qualities do you want linked to your brand?
  • What value do you bring to your audience?
  • Are you always consistent?
  • Can you tie your brand to a product or service brand?
  • What does your brand look like?
  • A strong personal brand is dependent on a strong narrative. In other words, what’s your story?


Walk The Talk


Remember, a personal brand is all about who you are and what you want to be known for. You can engineer any brand image you want through time and resources but to connect to your audience you must live it. You must walk your talk every day. I know this sounds daunting but controlling your professional reputation makes good sense for all of us. Our online image is our digital biography.


So who are you? Are you good enough to be a brand?