Marketing writers love to debate whether B2B brands can be funny. It’s a silly dispute to begin with. I like to picture these marketers as serious philosophers gathered around a marble slab, conducting this Socratic dialogue in hushed tones. “What about that MailChimp campaign from a few years ago? We all thought that was pretty clever. It won at Cannes, anyway,” says one. Another says, “But even if we can be funny, should we? Is it something society will allow?”
We’ll cut back to them in another year or two and see if they’ve come to any conclusions. In the meantime, let me throw another argument on the pile.
Every B2B brand can be funny, and every B2B brand should try to be funny. It doesn’t matter whether your brand voice is “clever,” “whimsical,” “relatable,” or any other attributes considered appropriate for joke-making. You can sell multi-cloud load balancing software and still make your audience laugh. Actually, if you sell something like that, you absolutely should.
Even the most pragmatic person you know still chuckles at something. In the same vein, I believe there’s a thread within every brand’s personality that lends itself to lightness and fun. Finding that thread and figuring out your sense of humor can have an actual revenue impact, please don’t ask me how much. All I know is that brands that make their voice distinctive stand out in crowded marketplaces and forge loyal connections with their audiences, and that probably helps them make the big bucks.
B2B tech brands are used to performing deep, soul-searching messaging exercises to define their personalities. They answer questions like, “Why do we exist? Which adjectives describe us and which don’t describe us? How do we want our audience to feel when interacting with us?” and arrive at clear, simple archetypes: the sage, the everyman, the ruler.
A similar messaging exercise can help brands find their comedic archetype. Here’s a few prompts for B2B brands to discover their senses of humor and start weaving it into marketing content.
1. What kind of funny are we? Are we witty, sarcastic, punny, satirical, silly, observational, surreal, self-deprecating, self-effacing?
Many B2B brands won’t touch humor at all because they’re too scared. They’re afraid of offending their audience, bombing the joke, or going “off brand.” Those that own their comedic voices already rise above the rest since B2B humor is simply so hard to do right.
The more distinctive you can make your comedic voice, the better. Think of your sense of humor like a character in a play. Give them a title if you want (e.g. the pun artist, the buddy comedian, the prankster). Well-written fictional characters usually maintain the same core flaws, quirks, and motivations as narrative conflict puts those traits to the test. Their archetype stays consistent while they grow and change in their responses to conflict.
Focusing on how you want to be funny will help B2B brands develop their sense of humor into a distinctive, recognizable, well-rounded character. That’s not to say they have to pick one style of humor and stick with it forever. A brand that mainly deals in wordplay is still entitled to make clever observations — as long as their archetype shines through.
Here’s an example. Slack has a straightforward, welcoming, and casual brand voice, mirroring the value its product brings: simplifying work comms. It uses its comedic voice to play up those attributes. When users ribbed its new logo release in 2019, Slack laughed right alongside them, further positioning itself as friendly, transparent, and approachable.
2. What kind of joke-making formats work well for us? Memes, one-liners, anecdotes, cultural callbacks, topical references?
Funny B2B content is more memorable, shareable, and attention-grabbing than boring old B2B content.* But the wrong format can break an otherwise good joke. The right format can elevate a mediocre joke into something iconic. If we think of a brand’s comedic voice as a character, format might be the costume it wears to express its personality.
Considering format helps brands find and nail the right delivery every time. Firebrand client Kenny Rose, FranShares CEO, provides an excellent example here. FranShares is a platform that lets anyone with $500 invest in franchises. FranShares’ brand voice is friendly, simple, and casual, embodying the types of businesses it selects for its funds (think car washes, gyms, and quick service restaurants).
On his LinkedIn, Kenny uses anecdotes and splashy hooks to craft his own persona as a hustling, energetic startup founder — right in line with the FranShares mission. LinkedIn is littered with posts from entrepreneurs writing in the same hustler narrative structure, to tedious effect. Kenny’s posts avoid that territory because he’d rather have fun than be the hero. His engagement rates speak for themselves.
*The author could find no legitimate studies backing this theory so please accept this as common knowledge.
3. What segments of our audience do we want to reach with humor?
Funny B2B content can draw your audience in, signaling that you understand their needs and speak their language. We laugh at things we relate to. If you know, you know.
It can also alienate people who don’t get the joke. You can’t guarantee that everyone in a given persona will find the same things funny. But you can make an educated guess about their frustrations, interests, and desires. That segmentation can get marketers pretty close to understanding what a persona will relate to, and tailor their sense of humor accordingly.
The other rule is to make sure that people who don’t get it can still decipher the marketing message. We’re not hired just to be funny!
I stumbled upon one of my favorite B2B puns ever seen out in the wild via Firebrand client EMOTIV. EMOTIV makes wireless EEG headsets and neuroscience software for scientists and consumer researchers. Deep on their website, I found a blog post titled: “Enjoy the Science: Inside the Brain of a Depeche Mode Fan.” This, of course, is a play on the band’s 1990 banger Enjoy the Silence. The post explores EMOTIV neuroscientist Olivier Oullier’s endeavor to record his brain activity during a Depeche Mode concert.
Not to stereotype, but I imagine the venn diagram of neuroscience enthusiasts and Depeche Mode fans is sizable, but not huge (and I am counting myself here). How many people got to appreciate this incredible pun? 100? 1,000? I’d argue this joke was still worth making if only 10 people saw the title and laughed. This was a once-in-a-lifetime pun opportunity. And most importantly, even if readers don’t catch the reference, the subtitle explains the content anyway. The marketing message is still clear.
4. What are our best channels for being funny?
You’ve thought about character, costumes, and audience. Now it’s time to place that character in different settings to see how it responds to its surroundings. Settings are kind of like your marketing channels. Trying your hand at funny content in different mediums helps brands expand their comedic voice, teaching them how to work with context and giving them a glimpse at how their audiences perceive them.
Humor won’t suit all channels. Considering audience and reach should help brands tailor their comedic voices to the medium at hand. High-visibility channels aren’t always the best places to pitch your funniest content, especially if you’re just getting started with B2B humor and aren’t sure how it will land. The Internet is an unforgiving place. Don’t blow your shot on a silly OOH billboard or a cringy Superbowl ad (looking at you, Meta) without serious audience testing. Okay? Okay.
Owned media channels are safe places to get your feet wet with funnier B2B content because they give you more control and a friendlier, user-based audience. Go for the company blog, social media, or executive columns.
Owning the medium also increases the chance that your joke doesn’t die on the cutting room floor. Passing through legal, procurement, finance, IT, product, design, VP and SVP of marketing, and the chief happiness officer is a great way to dilute something funny into something safe and boring. Marketers may have their best success sticking to channels where they’re only answering to one or two trusted stakeholders.
With practice and concentration, I believe every B2B tech brand can level up to the big leagues: a billboard on the stretch of the US 101 between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Zing!
Theresa Carper is a copywriter who uses humor and candor to craft compelling content. She also executes content strategy, campaign planning and media relations. Previously she wrote for a viral PR agency and a luxury furniture brand and was the comms lead for a smart city startup.