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.”
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.”
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?