The Art of the Joke: Forming an Effective Creative Strategy

A horse walks into a bar; the bartender says, “Hey, why the long face?”

Granted … this cornball joke, which has likely been around since slapstick comedy was in its prime, has probably elicited more groans than it has laughs over the years. But there’s a reason for starting this blog post about how to form an effective creative strategy with a reference to cornball humor and a tired old joke.

The point: for years, marketers have been building sales and marketing messages around a tired, familiar messaging strategy that may have worked in the past, but has become irrelevant and mundane today. And they’ve been doing this seemingly with the expectation that an audience will respond as if the approach is fresh and new.

There’s an old saying: “Insanity is repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting different results.” And that saying reflects the context of this strategic problem that marketers face — even though a messaging strategy (such as Yell and Sell — the marketer’s equivalent of telling a cornball joke) doesn’t work, that hasn’t stopped many marketers from doing it. Again, and again (and again).

One of the key problems with this Creative-Concept driven approach to strategy is it ignores the higher level principle of focusing first on using creative to support a brand or product’s Core Value Proposition. Additionally, this approach ignores the importance of the First Law of Marketing.

So how to freshen up this age-old approach to marketing communications? It might be as simple as tweaking what worked in the past a little bit to have a fresher appeal.

The Start of an Effective Creative Strategy

Let’s say you modified the way the joke is set up, as well as the punch line: “A horse walks into the Star Wars bar; the bartender says “Hey, we don’t serve your kind here!” Okay … maybe the “groan” factor remains a bit high. The point is that it’s a fresh approach because it goes somewhere unexpected — both in the setup and payoff. And this alone makes the variation of the joke better because it holds your attention longer and surprises you with the punchline (eliciting an emotional response).

The variation works better than the original for two reasons: it’s fresh, and it has a familiar context. Both make it memorable.

“Fresh” is a fuzzy concept in marketing communications, but there are some basic indicators that can help gauge what it is. Let’s circle back to the variation on the “horse walks into a bar” joke. One of the things that makes the variation interesting is the twist or surprise in the punchline. As a tired age-old joke that most everyone has heard, the re-working of the setup causes you to take notice because you are hearing something that seems familiar but is presented in a different way.

The other thing that adds impact to the variation on the joke is a familiar context. Consider the “We don’t serve your kind here…” punchline. “Star Wars” is #4 on the list of the top most watched movies of all time. So It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assume that most people on the planet are familiar with the scene where Luke, Han and Chewie walk into the alien bar and Chewie is told: “Hey, we don’t serve your kind here.”

Context and the Creative Strategy

What makes that scene work in the movie is the humor found in seeing a 9-foot tall walking carpet (Chewie) getting kicked out of a seedy joint full of some of the oddest looking creatures you’ve ever seen, all acting normally.

By piggybacking on the humor found in the “Star Wars” bar scene, the variation of the old “horse walks into a bar…” joke works because it makes the audience take notice because they are hearing something familiar, yet with a different twist.

In any case, what has happened with the variation on the joke is that engagement has been triggered and an emotional connection has been made through the humorous twist.

This same principle can work for marketing communications and strategic messaging. As I’ve covered in a previous blog post, Emotion is one of three core foundational principles that make up an effective value proposition. The three principle benefits of a successful Core Value Proposition are the Emotional, Self-Expressive and Functional benefits.

Let’s take a look at some examples of tired strategic communications approaches.

How many performance car commercials (Lexus, BMW, Infinity, etc) do you see on TV that feature fast-cut shots of sleek cars and beautiful people speeding through suburban landscapes … with racing car-like sound effects and pulse-beating music? How about all of them?

Quick: The last commercial you saw using this strategy was for what car brand? Can’t remember? Not surprised!

What about the sports drink category? The same style of pulse-beating music track playing while quick cuts of sweaty athletes compete against one (or themselves), only to gulp down a sports drink at the end with a satisfied sigh.

The problem with these approaches is not the execution — all are beautifully shot and underscored with great music, probably garnering the creative agencies lots of money and awards in the process. The problem is with the strategic messaging approach — using an all-too-familiar creative strategy in an effort to try and create engagement at best or elicit a reaction at least. It won’t work, and it makes you wonder why clients still approve these costly efforts.

One caveat here. “Fresh” doesn’t necessarily mean using shock or sizzle tactics. Too often, marketers try to rely on the shock factor as a substitution for forming an engaging creative strategy, but all this creative shortcut does is create a greater gap between relevant and irrelevant with regards to the sales proposition, as many in the audience will become turned off by the approach.

In Summary: How to Form an Effective Creative Strategy

While eliciting a positive emotional reaction is an important benefit of a successful Core Value Proposition, negative emotions will work as strongly against you as positive messages will work for you.

In summary, getting your core message through the clutter in today’s saturated market can be challenging, but using a fresh approach that has context and relevance will go a long way in helping you create breakthrough communications materials that move the needle.

Bill Threlkeld is president of Threlkeld Communications, a content digital marketing and public relations advisory based in Santa Monica, California. Threlkeld Communications specializes in content ecosystem campaigns, also known as the Content Distribution Ecosystem, a unique content approach that synchronizes and integrates PR, Social Media, Blogs, Audio, Video, Email Marketing and other content marketing components for systematic distribution and measurable results.

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