The very sensitive state of India means that a sense of humour is often dangerous for a human being, an organisation and, especially, a brand. Chances are that a freelance ‘Sanskari’ on the prowl will raise a grievous objection or our national obsession for endless gravitas will frown upon excessive levity. While the barriers do exist and are certainly formidable, there is no better tool for making a brand endearing than a steady dash of funny bones. Infusing warmth, humility, likeability and thus stickiness to what can easily turn out to be a very transactional relationship.
When Air India was a lovable global brand under the tutelage of Bobby Kooka and JRD Tata in the 1960s, a piece of literature called ‘Foolishly Yours’ was a free gift for every flyer. Possibly crafted with the finest wit and disarming candour I have ever experienced, it made it reach heights of lovable sophistication surpassing even the spectacular advertising. Amul is perhaps an eligible Indian peer, continuing a tradition of being societally disruptive and, in turn, upping the relevance quotient as per available metrics. In recent years, Sprite, Bingo and Snickers have banked their hopes on a tonality of irreverence, taking humour forward to a context of cultural affinity, blending youth attitude with jolly laughter. While ‘The Economist’ manages to cultivate a very tongue-in-cheek understatement as a brand signature, that does appeal to a cross-section of society relevant to its franchise most certainly.
The recent case of Zomato is interesting as a counterpoint to this wave of classical branding, where the team in charge operated on a borderline of insensitivity and imagination, evoking appreciation and censure in equal measure. Which does lead to the clear opinion that humour and good taste are most certainly aligned, any attempt to cloak a lack of the latter in the veneer of the former doomed for failure. It does mean that humour must be recognised as a positive emotion, emanating from the philosophy of its existence, fun quite clearly an item of opinion and not disregard. Many other brands, predictably in the lingerie space, transgress this line-of-control deliberately attempting a certain social cache that would lead to market success. While in MICA we were enamoured by a cigar called Hamlet, staking disproportionate claim on happiness that most certainly became a source of joy for those running the profit and loss account like in every other aspect of living, the consistent presence of good taste is very valuable for any positive initiative, branding certainly not an exception.
Every brand must engage with a designated humourist, with the agenda to add to gravity of delivery a certain disarmament of unnecessary loftiness, for very valuable business reasons above all else. Which does not mean that the role of seriousness in delivering the brand experience can be compromised but instead be infused with the possibility of lightness, to make the customer even more happy about the outcome. Humour thus becomes a delightful strategic tool, a bridge to bond and an adhesive to retain even the snootiest customer, connected to the fundamental human sentiment of wanting to forge relationships with those we like.
In the following paragraph, a few ideas on how some brands can benefit from the infusion of lightness is presented as an indication of truly limitless possibilities on the basic operating principle that this cannot be a campaign strategy but actually a consistent tonal quality, infused not just in the communication but in the packaging and ideally in the value proposition.
Kingfisher can take on the mantle of new-age pub humour, to be shared among friends in a home or external environment, neither vulgar nor over-the-top, instead attempting a new genre of conversation that will be captured in packaging as well. Manforce or any other suitably-restrictive peer, instead of creating one more me-too sensorial tale, will be happily advised to construct a narrative around relationship humour, with the inspiration of the ‘Boys will be Boys’ campaign. Even the hard-nosed children’s energy drink segment consisting of Bournvita and Horlicks may well smell differentiation through this route, connecting to mother and consumer through new-age ease.
Magazines and newspapers, in online and offline formats both, currently riding on a high horse as a point of parity, can stand out through intelligent humour, no better example than The Economist as a case in point. As certainly can the many aggregators or individuals in the fashion segment where likeability is as important as design, having a laughable take on social occasions for instance. Once again, a staggering influence must be Bollywood where even the most serious topic is presented in a disarming fashion, quite like Vicky Donor or its tongue-twister recent peer. The quality of messaging and its efficacy more effective when done in such a fashion, unlike the old-fashioned LIC tonality, where the direness is actually a put-off.
This will also have a societal spin-off as customers get fresh reasons to smile and, in return, will be very likely to appreciate the brand way beyond the transaction. It will also fuel a necessary movement for taking ourselves less seriously, thus a spurt for happiness and possibly even unification, as rabid conflict gets re-positioned as trivial scuffle. Importantly, developing a sense of humour does not mean that brands will always have to be funny, instead behaving like multi-faceted human beings serious at their workplace but witty at home and in society. You may well run into the occasional ‘Sanskari’ but if the work is in good taste do not deny your brand a delightful sense of humour.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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