Does global kill humour?

Who wants bland work? BBDO's Paul Reilly says the local flair is often what makes an ad funny.


By Paul Reilly

Here’s what I’m worried about today. As global brands develop work that’s meant to work in many countries around the world, they have to discard anything limited to one culture – like wordplay or, more significantly, humour. The result is brand advertising (and after all, that’s what global brands do) that has an unrealistic, unnatural feel that is equally innocuous in all countries. And that’s essentially how global brands evaluate these non-ideas – the degree to which they are inoffensive in all cultures. We end up with saccharine video (whether TV spots, Vimeo, YouTube, Vines whatever) that are little slices of nothing.

Humour is arguably the most effective brand-affection tool ever used. Not everyone can do it well, and when they do, it breaks through. In marketing strategy terms, it can make an otherwise parity brand likeable and increase its perceived value.

Look at Newcastle. Aren’t there 15 other beers on the shelf that have virtually the same taste and quality cues as Newcastle? But its past Super Bowl spot was absolutely ingratiating. Who wouldn’t want to support a brand like that? Well, millions of people actually. Why? Because they wouldn’t get the jokes layered into that piece. They haven’t grown up in a Super Bowl culture – or with the inside information about Hollywood deals and sponsorship rules ET and People Magazine blather about. They wouldn’t know that Anna Kendrick is at that stage in her career when she’s looking to do something provocative – because that’s what 28-year-old actresses do now. That’s all part of the North American culture – and even then, it’s not for every North American. That’s partly why it’s funny.

That’s where I think Newcastle is playing the global game better than say, Coca-Cola. Newcastle has translated its “No Bollocks” positioning into a guide for tone around the world, whereas Coca-Cola (and similarly, many others) have decreed that all communications illustrate its “Open Happiness” positioning. And let’s be honest, on paper “Open Happiness” is a better global positioning than “No Bollocks.” It translates perfectly into every culture. Everyone wants to be happy. And that’s the inherent flaw in my eyes. It’s too broad and shallow. What doesn’t it include? What is it against? Unhappiness? War? So’s Newcastle. And Pepsi and Ford and pretty much every other brand.

There aren’t many Canadian marketers with their hands on the wheel of global brand control. More often we adapt ideas and positionings developed elsewhere to make them work as effectively here as possible. Using global TV because we have to and then trying to make every other element of the marketing plan compensate for it is not the best use of brand dollars.

One thing we have to do is get ahead of the global campaign. We must declare to the global brand leaders exactly what we think we need to succeed here, and prove to them that innocuous brand work is of no value to us. Canadians have a long history of highly effective work that conforms to a brand’s global positioning but communicates in a relevant, break through way. Skittles’ “Touch the Rainbow,” for example?

We also need to gain influence at the global table and have more foresight when agreeing to global positionings born from global research studies. We need to project how this perfectly logical global positioning will play out in the market. This is where agencies can help clients. Senior agency people have accumulated experience on many brands and have developed an ability to see the creative possibilities in a positioning that brand managers are often not experienced enough to see. (Another day I’ll write about all the things brand managers can do well that agency people can’t.) We must help global brand leads see the potential outcome of their brand positioning work before they fall in love with it and go on their road show.

Reilly Paul_1_r2Paul Reilly is executive managing director, BBDO 

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