Walkers and Paddy Power on bringing humour back to marketing

We may be living through a pandemic, just emerging from lockdown and fresh from a global crisis, but Walkers and Paddy Power believe now is the right time for marketers to regain their sense of humour.

Amid pandemic, recession and general global gloom, is there room for humour in a crisis? Is it a fact that difficult times call for brands to be serious, or have brands simply lost their sense of humour?

The decline in humour in advertising is a reflection of society and the pressures of modern life, but brands should be ready to push back against this status quo, according to Walkers senior marketing director Fernando Kahane.

“Think about life during the pandemic, we have all these ads with emotional music, deep voiceovers. So suddenly humour has become a bit superfluous in our lives, but this idea that serious times call for serious brands is an idea we should really fight against,” said Kahane, speaking today at Advertising Week Europe (11 May).

“Humour can alleviate the mood, so this is one of the reasons why we can think about humour differently and not just as a reflection of society, but use humour to fight against the modern pressures we live with.”

Kahane believes it’s time for marketers to reconsider the power of humour and its ability to create bonds between brands and consumers. He admitted that for a while Walkers had forgotten the importance of humour and the part it plays in the brand DNA. Then, after working with creative agency VCCP, the team hit on the fact that self-deprecating humour is not intrinsic to Walkers, but part of the British DNA. As a result its marketers started to rethink humour, not as a separate part of the brand, but as a core facet.

Humour and purpose can coexist. More than that, they should coexist and brands that can do that well are going to have an edge.

Fernando Kahane, Walkers

“We just launched a new campaign about using humour to cope with life’s adversities and showing that when you can take life a bit less seriously and laugh about everyday adversities you can find the silver linings in every day,” Kahane explained.

“Humour is super powerful and if used in the right way and with the right tonality it can really make the power of brands stand out, become more memorable and create an emotional connection in a different way than a lot of emotional ads are trying to do.”

Marketing and brand director at Paddy Power, Michelle Spillane, agreed that humour should be present in marketing, but it requires a brand to be brave given the seismic cultural shifts currently taking place and the wider rise of cancel culture. She also noted that brands cannot just be funny in their advertising if it isn’t part of their DNA and there isn’t that humorous tone of voice to lean into.

Spillane explained that the type of comedy Paddy Power taps into has evolved since the onset of the pandemic as the brand has reacted to a loss of appetite for “provocative humour”.

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“That has been the case during points in our history where there has been global unrest or uncertainty, things like world wars. People weren’t looking for edgy, provocative humour during that time,” she pointed out.

“For us as a brand, what’s working well is being very self-deprecating. We also don’t tend to start with a gag. That’s where maybe sometimes things fall down. We tend to start with a cultural, societal truth, something that is true of its time. Then we layer on the self-deprecating, insightful, revealing humour. That’s what tends to work for us as a formula for our brand.”

Following a study of the different decades of humour, Paddy Power’s marketers are convinced brands will move back towards humour post-pandemic. The team studied how culture evolved after big world events and found that for a 15-year period in the aftermath of the Second World War a large amount of comedy and family feel-good movies were released.

“We’re entering into a time now where we’re coming out of the pandemic and there’s optimism, hope and an openness for brands to explore that [comedy] right now. The canvas is there to be painted by brands, so it’s a good time,” she added.

The unifying force of humour

Humour is also a good gateway to engage a younger consumer, but thinking hard about the channel mix is important.

Paddy Power found from research that it is difficult to cut through with the Gen Z consumer online, because there is this feeling you can “put anything online”. For the bookie brand, success has come from putting comedy on TV, a tactic which gets a thumbs up from younger consumers.

“TV is appreciated by Gen Z as a very filtered, editorial platform and when you can get certain humour right on TV for them, they’re very impressed,” said Spillane.

“You’ll get big brownie points because they’ll go ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe they just said that’. You could have said exactly the same thing online, you will get no kudos for it.”

For us as a brand, what’s working well is being very self-deprecating. We also don’t tend to start with a gag.

Michelle Spillane, Paddy Power

It is also important to understand how humour and purpose can coexist in the minds of consumers of all ages, added Kahane. He argued that the advertising industry had fallen into the trap of thinking that purpose should replace humour, because purpose is “potentially more aspirational”.

Instead, the Walkers marketing boss believes brands can make their purpose more powerful through humour as it helps make people feel comfortable and ready to open up.

“Humour brings a sense of security and allows people to speak out and open up about topics they might not,” he said. “I would definitely say humour and purpose can coexist. More than that, they should coexist and brands that can do that well are going to have an edge.”

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Spillane explained that Paddy Power also takes its purpose seriously, lending its voice to causes it feels passionate about. As far back as 2013 the gambling brand has been supporting the LGBTQ+ community, tackling the culture of homophobia in football with the launch of the ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign.

This purpose was brought to the fore again during the 2018 FIFA World Cup with ‘Rainbow Russians’. Designed to raise awareness of homophobia in Russian society, Paddy Power pledged to donate £10,000 to LGBTQ+ causes for every goal Russia scored in the tournament.

The campaign was a huge success and managed to not only reach an audience that might not otherwise have been thinking about the cause, but also encouraged them to rally behind the community and raise money for various charities.

“Purpose and humour coexisting gives an opportunity to draw attention in a much bigger way to causes. When we think about the attention economy and how many messages people get through advertising and a multiplicity of different channels, humour creates bonds and it’s a conversation starter,” Spillane added.

“What better way to create a conversation around your purpose than humour?”