Arby’s & The Art Of Branded Self-Deprecation

Buick, Domino’s, and Radio Shack have also acknowl­edged flaws to build buzz and mark new brand eras.

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Come­di­ans like Joan Rivers, Rod­ney Dan­ger­field, Louis C.K. and Tina Fey were/are mas­ters of self-dep­re­ca­tion. It’s a tool that human­izes humorists and, more recent­ly, brands.

We don’t have to look any fur­ther than fast food chain Arby’s, whose good­bye trib­ute to Jon Stew­art – a nos­tal­gic mash-up of his most bit­ing brand com­men­tary – was per­haps sec­ond in buzz only to the final episode of Stewart’s “Dai­ly Show” itself with 1.3 mil­lion views on YouTube and 8,000 tweets report­ed­ly gen­er­at­ed in 13 hours.

A Tool That Makes Brands Seem Genuine, Relatable

The Arby’s spot clear­ly struck a cul­tur­al chord and show­cas­es the poten­tial for self-dep­re­ca­tion in mar­ket­ing in which brands are forth­com­ing about flaws and/or neg­a­tive feed­back either to humor­ous effect to gen­er­ate buzz or to embrace new eras of trans­paren­cy.

BuzzFeed’s Ital­ian Grand­mas Try Olive Gar­den for the First Time – which gen­er­at­ed 3.2 mil­lion views – would be a per­fect exam­ple if it was actu­al­ly sanc­tioned by the brand. (It wasn’t.)

But a sim­i­lar effort, Piz­za Hut’s #Fla­vo­rofNow, did come with the bless­ing of the brand in ques­tion.

In it, Piz­za Hut high­lights a new so-called mod­ern menu with new-fan­gled crusts, sauces, and top­pings by ask­ing Ital­ian seniors – or what it calls “piz­za experts” – for their opin­ions. “All we can say is…they bare­ly tried our piz­zas and they don’t like change,” Piz­za Hut says.

The ‘80s Called…

Anoth­er brand shoot­ing for change is now-defunct elec­tron­ics retail­er Radio Shack. While the move clear­ly didn’t work long-term, Radio Shack did have one of the most pop­u­lar ads of the 2014 Super Bowl with its self-effac­ing nod as the unof­fi­cial elec­tron­ics retail­er of the 1980s.

Fea­tur­ing cameos by ‘80s super­stars like Alf, Cliff Clavin from “Cheers”, gym­nast Mary Lou Ret­ton, and CHiPs star Erik Estra­da, the brand attempt­ed to revamp its image with a spot that ranked 5th in USA Today’s Ad Meter, behind only Bud­weis­er and Dori­tos, and fourth over­all by video adver­tis­ing ana­lyt­ics firm Ace Metrix.

It gen­er­at­ed tons of buzz and even a report­ed jump in stock price, prov­ing self-dep­re­ca­tion was at least an effec­tive short-term strat­e­gy for Radio Shack.

Experience The New Buick

For its part, Buick is still run­ning its “Expe­ri­ence the New Buick” ads, which poke fun of the brand’s long­time rep­u­ta­tion as man­u­fac­tur­ing cars for old peo­ple.

The series has gen­er­at­ed a com­bined 1.1 mil­lion views on YouTube to date and, accord­ing to a recent press release, Buick’s sales in the U.S. increased in May com­pared to a year ago thanks in part to sales of its Enclave and Encore mod­els, which are two cars fea­tured in these spots. What’s more, Buick says it has sold more Encores this year than any oth­er mod­el, account­ing for 30 per­cent of the brand’s retail sales.

What prompt­ed the cam­paign was the con­tin­ued false famil­iar­i­ty among con­sumers around Buick prod­ucts. Most con­sumers had a pos­i­tive opin­ion of the Buick brand, but felt that we did not pro­vide prod­ucts that met their needs,” said Buick rep Nick Richards. “They were bas­ing this opin­ion on the his­toric vehi­cles, and not the award-win­ning, high qual­i­ty vehi­cles we have in the show­room today. When those same con­sumers were intro­duced to the cur­rent port­fo­lio, their opin­ion of the brand and Buick vehi­cles changed. There­fore, we saw the need to attack the issue head-on and start to shift the con­ver­sa­tion about what Buick vehi­cles are today.”

Pizza Turnaround

Fur­ther, quick-ser­vice restau­rant chain Domino’s still has its ongo­ing Piz­za Turn­around cam­paign in which it has open­ly acknowl­edged tough crit­ics and is work­ing to be more trans­par­ent, revamp­ing its recipes and stores, imple­ment­ing high-tech inno­va­tions like emo­ji order­ing, and launch­ing a piz­za school microsite that shows how the brand makes its piz­za.

While there isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly overt humor per se, there is cer­tain­ly a pub­lic acknowl­edge­ment of flaws.

Accord­ing to ad agency CP+B, the result has been five years of pos­i­tive same-store sales growth, a 1200 per­cent increase in stock price and over 1 bil­lion free impres­sions of PR buzz in a sin­gle year.

By pre­sent­ing con­sumers with their own thoughts and feel­ings, then let­ting them see how we addressed their needs, we dis­armed their skep­ti­cism about our new and improved claim, and empow­ered them to believe us,” the agency said. “We also helped them feel like they’d had a hand in mak­ing our piz­za bet­ter.”

So What’s The Verdict On Marketing Potential?

Accord­ing to Andy Beal, CEO of social media mon­i­tor­ing and ana­lyt­ics firm Track­ur, self-dep­re­ca­tion as a mar­ket­ing ploy only works if a brand has a gen­er­al­ly accept­ed flaw that is not real­ly all that bad.

You have to be able to acknowl­edge it, but at the same time feel com­fort­able that your own self-admis­sion won’t hurt your brand,” he said. “With Arby’s, they can acknowl­edge that their food is not haute cui­sine, but they can do so because they know they have a loy­al cus­tomer base — and are also known for hav­ing fun with their brand [like with Pharrell’s hat and the Pep­si spot]. With Buick, they knew they had a rep­u­ta­tion for build­ing bland cars, but their new designs are styl­ish, so they can be ‘in’ on the joke now.”

Vas­silis Dalakas, a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor at Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty San Mar­cos, agrees two-sided mes­sag­ing that incor­po­rates both pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives is safe when a brand has only minor flaws.

It can make the brand look more gen­uine as it has no prob­lem rec­og­niz­ing its weak­ness­es, which some con­sumers may find unusu­al and refresh­ing,” Dalakas said. “Along those lines, con­sumers may be more open to any of the brand’s pos­i­tive claims as there is less sus­pi­cion on the brand’s motives to manip­u­late a con­sumer.”

How­ev­er, Beal notes, while self-dep­re­ca­tion can work as a cam­paign, it won’t work for the long term.

At some point, you have to have a prod­uct or ser­vice that can stand on some­thing of mer­it and val­ue,” he said.

What’s All This Fuss About?

For her part, Nan­cy Harhut, Chief Cre­ative Offi­cer of Wilde Agency, a dig­i­tal and direct mar­ket­ing agency that says it has “exper­tise in lever­ag­ing behav­ioral sci­ence,” said the clear ben­e­fit for Arby’s in the “Dai­ly Show” exam­ple is name recog­ni­tion. “If you are an Arby’s fan, you’ll love it.

If you hate the stuff, there is prob­a­bly lit­tle that can con­vince oth­er­wise,” she said. “But if you are some­where in between, and sud­den­ly you are hearing/seeing all this Arby’s buzz, you just may find your­self eat­ing there. What’s the old chest­nut? ‘It doesn’t mat­ter what they say as long as they spell your name right?’ And this par­tic­u­lar exe­cu­tion has a cer­tain con­fi­dence about it to boot.”

Demonstrating A Little Individuality

In addi­tion, self-dep­re­ca­tion can help express brand per­son­al­i­ty, which Jasper Nathaniel, vice pres­i­dent of busi­ness devel­op­ment and strat­e­gy at Crowd­tap, an online com­mu­ni­ty that con­nects con­sumers with brands, said is increas­ing­ly influ­en­tial in pur­chase deci­sions.

Peo­ple are increas­ing­ly sup­port­ing com­pa­nies whose per­son­al­i­ties and val­ues align with their own,” Nathaniel said. “By embrac­ing the voice of your cus­tomers and open­ing your brand up to ongo­ing feed­back and par­tic­i­pa­tion, mar­keters can gain a deep­er under­stand­ing of their con­sumers and earn trust by build­ing long-term part­ner­ships with peo­ple who have skin in the game.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, Sarah Hard­wick, CEO of Zen­zi, which calls itself a val­ues-based mar­ket­ing agency, agrees buy­ing trends have shift­ed over the last sev­er­al years and con­sumers no longer want to be mar­ket­ed to – and prob­a­bly nev­er did.

Peo­ple are demand­ing greater trans­paren­cy and seek­ing out brands that share their core val­ues and beliefs,” Hard­wick said. “For mar­keters, know­ing your tar­get demo­graph­ic is no longer enough – you’ve got to know their hearts and minds. And for many brands, an effec­tive way to make an authen­tic con­nec­tion is through humor, even more so when they are pok­ing fun at them­selves.”

Indeed, brands must be care­ful they know their audi­ences before pro­ceed­ing with a tool like self-dep­re­ca­tion.

If it’s just not fun­ny or cross­es the line between fun­ny and offen­sive, it can back­fire,” Hard­wick said. “But if you know what they val­ue and what’s impor­tant to them, you are more like­ly to hit the mark.”

Fur­ther, Hard­wick notes laugh­ter releas­es endor­phins, relax­es con­sumers, and makes them feel a part of a com­mu­ni­ty, while also sig­nif­i­cant­ly increas­ing the like­li­hood con­tent will be shared social­ly.

If You Can’t Laugh At Yourself…

It also may be bet­ter for a brand to con­trol the sto­ry with self-dep­re­ca­tion when it comes to neg­a­tive buzz, notes Bian­ca Lee, chief strate­gist at White Rose Mar­ket­ing Solu­tions.

Con­sid­er the alter­na­tive: This same brand sto­ry being told by con­sumers,” she said. “It is super-easy to make GIFs and tweet links with these same clips in a dif­fer­ent con­text. Even if this ad didn’t push the equi­ty of the Arby’s brand in a pos­i­tive direc­tion, which I believe it did, it took away the incen­tive for a con­sumer to post a sim­i­lar video mon­tage on behalf of Arby’s.”

But: Pigeonholed

How­ev­er, mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant Chris Dupin notes a poten­tial risk in that Arby’s has staked its posi­tion – poten­tial­ly for years to come.

They can’t now go be the ‘fresh roast beef’ place and try to move up-mar­ket to catch the Chipo­tles and Five Guys of the world,” he said. “They are now locked into mys­tery meat and pump-dis­pensed cheese.”

What’s your take on self-dep­re­ca­tion as a mar­ket­ing tool?

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.