BCON bits: Finding the millennial funny bone

The Onion is training, not tricking, Gen Y to listen up, says Rick Hamann ahead of his talk later this month.


In the lead up to BCON Expo 2015 on March 25, strategy asks speaker Rick Hamann of the Onion what can be expected of his talk on targeting millennials with branded content.

What can people expect from your talk at BCON Expo 2015?

I think the Onion has a very specific approach to branded content and my talk is really going to show how a brand that has been making arguably the greatest comedy in the world for 26 years has evolved into embracing this particular kind of content.

What are brands doing wrong when targeting millennials? 

The way that we look at it, millennials are the most advertised-to group of people in the history of the world. They’ve been marketed to since they were in utero and the biggest mistake a brand can make is to blatantly advertise to them. This is an audience that will actively reject being advertised to. They don’t like being talked down to, they don’t like being marketed to, and so they’re really good at sniffing out advertising. A lot of mistakes that marketers make is that they just try to make a commercial that’s directed towards this audience, and nothing will shut off millennials faster than a blatant commercial.

So what is it that has made the Onion‘s work in branded content successful?

I think first and foremost, we value our audience’s intelligence and so we try not to dumb down our work. We also don’t trick our audience into viewing branded content. We’re in the train, not trick, mode. We don’t try to sneak in marketing materials, we’re pretty upfront with them. We’re also upfront with them in knowing that the content we create is going to be of quality and worthy of the Onion name.

We always try to strike this balance between how much of the voice of the Onion you’re looking to [have] as an advertiser, versus how much control you’d like.

What we’ve found to be the most successful is when we’re kind of in between those, where you’re able to get some Onion affinity, whether it be our style of humour or our voice, but at the same time, we’re allowing a little bit more control of the kind of content that the Onion‘s putting out.

I think an example of that would be the work we did for Lenovo. Lenovo’s a huge computer company and they wanted to get the word out that they have NFL sponsorship, so we created a series created “Tough Season,” which was a parody of the HBO show Hard Knocks.

It’s really the story of a fantasy football league, just like the kind that millions of people play every week, but this was with the added bonus of blurring the lines of reality where we actually got NFL players to physically be at these fantasy football coaches’ teams.

We had access to NFL players and they behaved as if they were really playing for these regular average guys at an office. That gave Lenovo the ability to play in the parody world, but at the same time, it wasn’t necessarily a news piece, so the client was able to have a little bit more control over the content.

However, what makes Lenovo such a brilliant client for us was that they actually wanted us to push the content as much as possible. Their marketing team said “we will let you know when you’ve crossed the line” and I can only think of one or two places where they asked us to dial back the humour and they actually embraced us playfully poking fun at the brand.

Our main character in the web series mispronounces Lenovo throughout the series, and because it’s an NFL parody, Lenovo products are just plastered everywhere and there’s a real sense of corporate overlord within the series.

The Onion was able to bring a little bit of an edge to the content, Lenovo was able to be in on the joke but be able to have enough say in the content that they didn’t feel like they were losing the power and control that a lot of clients typically look for.

I think it really just comes down to how much affinity a client’s looking to gain versus how much control. We tailor the creative and the comedy to that kind of balance.

How was it successful with the target audience?

I think our audience comes to us for a particular style of humour and they come to us for parody, and it really felt, even though it was a branded piece, in the voice of the Onion. It fell within our universe and our world.

Our audience tends to give clients more credit when they allow the Onion to do their thing on behalf of the brand. Our audience embraces products or clients that are willing to be in on the joke. The millennial audience hates being talked down to, and they hate being advertised too, so when we did a series like this, it didn’t feel overbearing. Our audience knew that it was branded content but it was written so well that they were able to get some entertainment out of it.

How have you seen the branded content space changed in the past year?

I think it’s a space people are really trying to figure out and there are no clean solutions as of yet. One thing that I have noticed is quality of content is always going to win out. I think there are brands that have tried to slip messages past their audiences and that tends to backfire. Brands that embrace trying to do the best quality content that they can are usually rewarded for that effort.

What about future trends – what do you think we’ll see more of?

I think we’re going to find the most successful work is going to be content that strives to be great quality content first and then an advertising message second. I think you’ll find that the things that are really going to pop will strive to be of the same quality as the regular editorial that comes out of publishers.

From your experience, you know humour works for targeting millennials, but what else works?

I think humour is something that works but I would say what really works for us is cultural relevance. We have our cultural arm, the AV Club here, and they do an excellent job at creating culturally relevant content and it just happens to include a brand.

I think one way to be culturally relevant is to include humour. I think there’s other ways – aligning with musicians that are popular or that resonate with an audience, or aligning with television shows or movies. I think if you can just resonate with the interests of your audience, I think that is just as effective as comedy, which is the lifeblood of the Onion.

RickRick Hamann is SVP of content for the Onion.