Levity is the Killer ...


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.

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.”

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.


  • Evelyn

    I love what Zappos did; I applaud what they did.

    However, as you’ve said, how many companies are bold enough to stay true to their brand identity? Most of them take the middle road and end up being oh so ho-hum.

  • Patrick McGee

    Your point about levity over funny is well made. Too often stretching for funny takes people over the edge to disaster. Levity works, even if the audience just smiles on the inside.

    • hoffman

      Exactly. There’s a reason you can count on one hand the number of comedians you’d pay to see. Funny is tough. I also think many marketing folks undervalue a communications that as you put it just prompts “a smile.”

  • Raf Stevens | Business Storytelling Works

    […] Je hebt wel moed maar ook creativiteit nodig om lichtzinnigheid in je bedrijfscommunicatie te brengen. […]


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