Funny brands. Serious business.

A couple of days ago I was listening to the How I Built This podcast (obsessed).  The guest was Jonah Peretti, co-founder of Buzzfeed and, drop the mic, brother of Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Gina.

Jonah was talking about how he built his media empire, but what caught my attention were his observations on what makes things go viral.

The #1 thing he cited?  Humor. 

Turns out, we love sharing funny because laughing at the same thing bonds us to our people.

It makes a lot of sense and it got me thinking about the power of humor in brand language. Brands that hone their own kind of funny cut through the noise, get shared, and create tight bonds with their customers through a voice and style that's hard for competitors to copy. 

If funny brands mean serious business...

How do we infuse our brands with humor without crashing and burning?

I'm no Gina, but these 5 tips are a start.

1. DO know your audience

Your customers are your starting point for everything. Will they appreciate your humor?  Are there generational or cultural barriers that might impact how your voice is received?  If you think some segments of your audience will love a humorous tone and others won’t, then perhaps your audience is too broad and you should consider narrowing in on your ideal customers.

2. DON’T ignore the competition

Who else is doing humor in the market? Who’s succeeding and who’s not pulling it off? If others are doing humor you’ll have to work extra hard to find your unique voice so you’re not perceived as a “me too” brand.

3. DO have a serious value proposition

The residential rental sector isn’t really known for its interesting brands, but Uncle is different.


From its bold tagline, “a landlord that’s got your back,” to its quirky brand video, to its funky blog, FUNCLE, it's humor is a powerful differentiator in a historically corporate market.

The humor works so well because it's backed up by a  value proposition that's nothing to laugh at—100% owned and operated properties, onsite residential managers, zero hidden fees, a 48-hour repairs policy, 2-months’ notice even if you’re in the middle a lease, and more.

4. DON'T ignore the funny people on your team

A band voice is an expression of the collective personality, values and points of view of the people who make up the brand. To be a funny brand, you have to empower the funny people on your team to use their humor in internal and external communications.

The makeup company Glossier, known for its sassy, approachable tone of voice, is a great example of this concept.  Check out this cheeky out of office message from one of its team members posted to the brand's Instagram Stories. It's not over-the-top, rolling-on-the-ground, laughing-till-you-cry funny. But it has just the right amount of snark and wit to suit this millennial-minded brand. 


5. DO delight your customers

Funny is a high bar. It takes skill, practice, and, sometimes, professionals to pull off. 

Delight is much more achievable and a great goal for brands that want to add more levity into their communications. Below, Postable does a great job of this by slipping in a "Viva snail mail" rallying cry in an otherwise straight forward confirmation email.


What do you think?

Are you making humor an important part of your brand? Share any tips, insights or blunders below.

Let's be pen pals!

Tap into my free brand and writing wisdom by subscribing to Starknotes. Be the first to hear about exclusive offers and freebies, and get my best advice for building a great brand from the inside out straight to your inbox.

MailChimp's Message-led Repositioning

Are you one of MailChimp's 15 million users? Have you noticed the brand repositioning it's been stealthily executing right under our noses? I have, and I think there’s so much to learn from how it's using messaging as the foundation of a big strategic shift.

Brand positioning, a brief primer…

In marketing talk, positioning is how your customers think of and categorize your brand in their minds—especially when it comes to the needs that you meet and how you're different than your competitors.

Whether you know it or not, you’re constantly giving customers cues on how they should position you. Everything from your price to your web experience, from your product names to the events you sponsor, defines and solidifies your brand position.

Edgy, millennial, enterprise, nerd-chic, lifestyle, sustainable, minority-owned, entrepreneurial, bio-dynamic, etc.—the unique combo of adjectives that your brand conjures in your customers’ minds?  That’s your position.

But what happens when you want customers to think of you differently?

MailChimp ran into this conundrum earlier this year when it developed a suite of new features, including Facebook and Instagram Campaigns, which go beyond the user-friendly email marketing solution the company's famous for.

  MailChimp homepage, April 2016

MailChimp homepage, April 2016

How to message your way through a repositioning (á La MailChimp):


1. Revise your promise

  MailChimp homepage, April 2017

MailChimp homepage, April 2017

MailChimp's homepage over the last year tells the story of the brand's gradual, strategic pivot. 

The main headline before the repositioning started? "Send better email."  The main headline after the launch of Facebook Campaigns? "Send better email. Sell more stuff." 

Both were clear, concise, compelling brand promises, but they limited MailChimp in one very obvious way.

To take the repositioning to the next level, the brand ditched any mention of email on its main header and instead honed in on how the new features were enhancing its value proposition.

The current homepage banner headline? "Build your brand. Sell more stuff."

  MailChimp Homepage on May 3, 2017: "Build your brand. Sell more stuff."

MailChimp Homepage on May 3, 2017: "Build your brand. Sell more stuff."

Only three words changed, but those three words tell existing and prospective customers that MailChimp is no longer a one-trick pony. It's got an entire arsenal of features to help customers market themselves holistically, on their own terms.

  "Be yourself on a bigger stage" -- A second treatment of MailChimp's new brand promise. 

"Be yourself on a bigger stage" -- A second treatment of MailChimp's new brand promise. 

2. Create a new messaging hierarchy

With "Build your brand. Sell more stuff." MailChimp created a message that sits above its former brand promise.  

"Send better email" is still there, but it's now moved down a place on the messaging hierarchy.  MailChimp has also adopted  additional benefit-driven key messages that highlight the platform's new features such as  "Automate your marketing" and "Find your people."

Email marketing is still a huge part of the MailChimp brand (and it's probably the #1 reason people visit the site) but it now takes a secondary role in a messaging structure designed to get customers thinking bigger and broader about the many ways MailChimp can fit into their lives. 

3. Consider your category

A category answers the question, what are you?  Every brand needs to define a basic "what," and chances are it'll be something that there's already a lot of.  Many entrepreneurs, particularly innovators, resist this because they want to be seen as different to their competitors.  But being different only matters once your customers understand what you do.  

Reassessing and, perhaps even claiming a new category, as in the case of MailChimp, is really important in a repositioning campaign to eliminate confusion and help customers get to the even more pressing question, are you for them? 

Take a look at MailChimp's new "what" bolded in blue below:

MailChimp's no longer an email marketing company. It's now a marketing automation platform-- a solution robust enough to manage multiple aspects of customers' marketing funnels.

4. Keep what works

Friendly, relatable, clear, quirky -- these work for MailChimp and they've been the hallmarks of the brand from the beginning.  It's going going through an important strategic shift, but MailChimp's uncompromising in its dedication to being human, which might be its most important differentiator.

  Delightfully democratic messaging.

Delightfully democratic messaging.

 Clear copy, cheeky delivery. 

Clear copy, cheeky delivery. 

Do you want your customers to think of you in a new way?

My 4-week Articulation Intensive might be for you.  Get messaging that will help your customers understand what you do and think of you differently so you can grow.


A 3-Part Copy Formula To Explain What You Do

When it comes to quickly explaining what you do or what your product does, it's hard not to fall into one of two camps: oversimplifying to the point where you don't say anything truly compelling, OR saying so much you overwhelm your customer and lose their attention.

There’s a better way!

I call it honing your before/after statement.

A before/after statement quickly explains the transformation journey that you take customers on. It paints a picture of how you leave them better than before and it's a must-have element of any brand messaging toolkit.

Here’s the easy 3-part formula I use to write before/after statements for my clients:

Customer’s Problem + Client's Unique Solution + Customer's “Happy Ending” = Before/After Statement

Want to see the formula in action? Right this way...

Key: Problem SolutionHappy Ending

Example 1

70% of Main Street families live paycheck to paycheck. To end the cycle, they need easy tools and solid financial advice to help them keep more of what they make. Our budgeting app not only helps them track their money but also connects them to knowledgeable coaches that don't sell financial products so they get the on-demand tools and no-strings advice they need to be financially free.

Example 2

Infant development studies show that babies' brains benefit from high-contrast color environments, so we design graphic, black and white nursery decor that's chic and super stimulating  for babies in their first months. Parents like our minimalistic designs but what they really love is knowing that they're creating extra healthy spaces for their babies to thrive in.

Example 3

It's not enough to have a big vision. Your brand needs a clear message for customers, partners, and employees to buy in wholeheartedly. My program gives you the language tools you need to clearly and consistently talk about your products, services, and difference so you can grow


Now it’s your turn! Spend an hour this week honing your own before/after statement. It might take a few iterations before you get it right but it's totally worth it. Besides making for killer web copy, you'll find this messaging super handy in sales conversations or for the proverbial "elevator pitch."

As long as you’re pointing out the right problem and you’ve got the right solution, selling becomes 10x easier once you have your product's own before-and-after in the bag.

For more brand language tips, sign up for Starknotes, my e-letters filled with brand, writing, and entrepreneurship wisdom you want.