Levity is the Killer App for Business Storytelling

Notice I said “levity,” not “funny” which is a much higher bar.

Still, it often takes guts as much as creativity to bring levity to a brand’s storytelling. And if you can tap into a recent happenstance, you’ve got the makings for a story to reach the masses.

I’ve come to call this “improv marketing” with one of the best-known examples being the Oreo tweet during the Super Bowl blackout.

It’s one thing to be nimble in serving up a clever tweet.

It’s another to create a mini campaign with levity in less than 48 hours to leverage a breaking news story. That’s exactly what Zappos pulled off after Kanye West’s beat down of Zappos CEO Tony Hseih during a podcast with author Brett Easton Ellis on Nov. 18. The next day E Online reported on West’s cathartic moment:

“I got into this giant argument with the head of Zappos that he’s trying to tell me what I need to focus on. Meanwhile, he sells all this s–t product to everybody, his whole thing is based off of selling s–t product,” West stated.

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I think we all can agree this isn’t a key message for Zappos.

Twenty-four hours later, Zappos went live with a new product line inspired by Mr. West:

Put yourself in the shoes – cue the groan for the bad pun – of Zappos’ brand shepherds. They had two obvious choices:

  • Do nothing: Name calling from Kayne West isn’t going to torpedo Cole Haan sales.
  • Call some friendly journalists: Zappos and Tony Hseih could have made a withdrawl from the media karma bank, sharing their side of the story and perhaps offering West a “buy one pair of shoes, get a second pair of free of charge” coupon

Instead, they recognized that “improv marketing” could actually turn West’s harsh words in a brand-building exercise. And it took guts to execute on this campaign because any time you push the envelope, you are going to alienate a percent of people.

Like this guy/gal who counseled the Zappos CEO to grow up:

Imso A
from United States

“Get a life, Tony Hsieh. You’re the CEO of a huge company, it’s time to act like it. This is severely immature and I will be sure to never purchase anything from your company again.”
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The campaign reflects the Zappos ethos – this is a company that calls out “create fun and a little weirdness” as a core value – so if some are turned off like “Imso A,” Zappos probably figures they’re not the target audience anyway.

Effective branding is often a polarizing force. It’s the dull middle you want to avoid.

And nothing cuts through dull like levity as demonstrated by the branding work from Zappos last week.

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