Humor as perpetual emotion

An open letter to Andy Beedle…

I’m an Andy Beedle fan. Love your sense of humor, admire your ability to assemble a creative staff and deliver a measurable marketing success to college clients.

I share your commitment to the college market, and share your perspectives on many issues related to marketing to Millennials, including the value of authenticity, self-deprecating humor, and the major wrong-headedness of the Appalachian State “HOT HOT HOT” video.

But I think you’ve gone a bit overboard in your latest email, Andy…

Every week, I get several calls from College and University enrollment folks wanting to talk about having us do a new and innovative project for their institution. I also get slightly fewer calls from other higher ed marketing firms that are intellectual property fishing trips disguised as “partnership explorations” where they ask questions about how we come up with our ideas for online campaigns and I say non-committal things like, “We work hard on a collaborative and generative process that is informed by the interests of the target demo.” I have no idea what that means, but it makes those calls mercifully brief.

[Andy then proceeds to advocate ways of achieving viral marketing clout through humor, humor, and more humor.]

First, Andy, I want to say that going viral via humor is a very dangerous branding strategy for a college. Yes, some of your efforts on your web site are laugh-out-load funny, including the Stickman animations for Kettering, and the George Mason mascot video. Brilliant. But Beedle, you’re a Boomer, and while Millennials crave immediacy, Gen Y literacy, individualism, and social interactivity (according to Forrester), they are not the irreverent rebels you and I are. They get along with their parents (80-90 percent), buy brands (90 percent), tolerate and even desire supervision and protection, build communities rather than protest injustices, respect branded institutions if they sense authenticity, and are in many ways much more conservative than we are from the inside out.

For that reason, while there’s no doubt they love to find goofy junk on YouTube to laugh at with their friends, they are not necessarily going to be dismissive of a credible, authentic presentation about a school. They seem to be much less hypocritical than we are about getting an education and a job. We cry “down with the establishment” while we build the most materialistic lifestyle in history; they are often turning away from lucrative positions in order to find meaning in volunteering or other lower-income pursuits.

Second, your attitude toward other marketing approaches feels like smugness. Ideas, freshness, have never been a challenge for me personally; speaking for myself along with you and your staff and many other marketers I know, there are plenty of folks who feel relentlessly creative and have no problem coming up with fresh, prescriptive ideas to suggest to clients. Those of us who choose to specialize in the college marketing arena do so, I would guess, out of a desire to focus on a demanding niche that requires a very refined and nuanced level of creative precision. As a class, college marketers from A-beedle to Ztories (my tiny company), and all the Lipman Hearnes and Stamats in between, have much more trouble getting their clients to take risks than they do finding fresh creative ideas to suggest to their clients. [Am I right on this, fellow marketers?!] So, Andy, my hunch is that lots of college marketing consultants have got to feel the same as I do, impressed with your creativity but not necessarily your artistry.

Third, and most important, humor can attract attention, but it can also cheapen the brand of anything that purports to be worth a $120,000 price tag. Does Michelin go for humor? Cuteness, friendliness, family values; but not funny. Do Lexus and Volvo attach humor to their brands? No, good quality is not funny. Safety is serious. A quality diploma is no laughing matter.

And so for getting unqualified, happy-go-lucky leads, your viral yuck-it-up stuff can fill an inbox. Maybe even bring in a bumper crop of applications. But if you want those Kettering applicants to matriculate, and stay for 4 years because it was a good fit, it seems to me there needs to be a serious and credible set of messages that address substantive issues with the kind of immediacy and Millennial literacy that other schools are able to do through more dignified marketing efforts.

When I scratch below the brilliant, viral Kettering search effort, I see media which fails to bolster its most basic claims vis-a-vis dynamic, engaged applied science. Nor does it authentically address the tough situations students who actually go there must face in an economically distressed community. Should colleges take a caveat emptor approach to their image, or should they attempt to be more transparent about their actual weaknesses as well as strengths?

And the chemical activity level of the humor I’m seeing here can produce unexpected results. It would be damaging to a school like Whitman to make fun of liberal arts as an aspiration. It would be destructive to a Hillsdale to get funny about its preoccupation with politics. These are critical dimensions, august ideals, which fill the very air at these institutions. For me, the essence of brand elucidation requires colleges to begin treating 17-year-olds as adults who are going to be making serious decisions based on reason and, yes, the western rational tradition rather than some funny but ultimately senseless zinger by the school’s mascot.

Has the bump in interest provided by Stickman been a benefit to Kettering? Short term, it seems positive, but how will it play long-term? Here’s my concern: the downside of associating Stickman to a college brand, is the junk which has now been attached to Stickman at the top of the search engines: Subservient Stickman.

No, I’m not advocating stuffy, predictable bureaucratese. Most college videos I’ve ever seen are unendurable. I’m advocating truthful and memorable storytelling. I have seen the benefits of credible, compelling, immediate, socially-interwoven rich media that builds brand equity.

“Authentic” and “sarcastic” are not synonyms. Making it authentic does not mean making it disrespectful, irreverent, or ironic. It means making the claims precisely and demonstrably true, without hubris or puffery. And communicating effectively with rich media requires an emphasis on appropriate emotion, not “facts”. It means story-telling with just the right mixture of humor, humanity, and gravitas.

Will these kinds of weighty communication efforts go viral? Not often. But they’re worth paying for because they have value.

Ultimately, aspiring to get the marketing equivalent of perpetual motion is not just fraught with risk; it could be downright foolish and create a perpetual emotion, a damaging double-entendre that sticks like glue and measurably hurts the most important thing a college has: its reputation.

PS — Andy, I hope to meet you some day and settle this little disagreement over humor methods with a friendly (and funny) contest… hot-dog eating? jousting? inflatable Sumo smackdowns? Or we could have a recite-off of our favorite aphoristic writers. I elect Alexander Pope, Francis Bacon, Mark Twain and Piet Hein… šŸ™‚

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One Response

  1. […] me the effort is an exception that proves my rule that sarcastic humor can do more harm than good to a brand, especially one that has a high value […]

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