Aw, Shucks: Can Putting Your Brand Down Help Build It Up?

At some point in the last decade or so, there’s been a sharp decrease in self-important marketing efforts—and an increase in self-deprecating ones. If you ride the New York City subway to work like we do, this is especially apparent. 

An ad that says a product can’t do X or isn’t important because of Y may seem counterintuitive. But lately, brands seem intent on making fun of themselves, their users, and their product’s results. 

Ever wondered why that is, and if there’s any proof that it’s an effective strategy? We have, too—so let’s dive deeper. 

Hype is dead

Since the dawn of advertising, brands have traditionally referred to themselves as the greatest thing since sliced bread—presenting almost too-perfect solutions to their customers’ problems. 

It’s not hard to see why that gushy, self-important language may incite eye-rolling or fail to capture an audience’s attention in the 21st century. For one thing, we’re all much more marketing-savvy these days—and a lot more skeptical. And with brands pushing thousands of messages to us every day via more channels than ever before, pure hype has lost its power. 

In this climate of skepticism and marketing fatigue, customers want something real. That’s the void that self-deprecating marketing fills. When you admit to less-than-perfection, you create the possibility of something being just what I needed—rather than too good to be true. 

As Bill Bernbach once said, “A small admission gains a large acceptance.” And judging by the success of brands that have mastered this art, it seems that he was correct. 

Real is the new unrealistic 

Unsurprisingly, the shift toward self-deprecation began when Millennials—the generation that seems to appreciate less-than-complimentary copy the most—became the generation with the most purchasing power. 

Currently the largest generation in the U.S., Millennials are projected to spend an impressive $1.4 trillion annually by 2020—so it’s no surprise that brands want to cater to them. And while Gen X and are big on brand loyalty and Boomers will reach for a brand they know and trust, Millennials are all about transparency in the marketplace. With more options than ever to choose from, they appreciate when a brand creates a conversation they can be a part of, instead of making empty promises. 

If you’re thinking, “that sounds like something everyone can appreciate,” you’re right: when it’s done well, self-deprecating copy can resonate with a variety of audiences. So, what does this look like in practice? 

A knowing wink wins hearts

For an example of self-deprecating marketing done right, look no further than Oatly. The alt-milk company’s entire ad strategy is built on poking fun at its brand. In doing so, its copy makes a convincing case to try the non-traditional beverage—and with estimated sales of $230 million in 2019, plenty of consumers have been swayed.  

IKEA has also dabbled in self-deprecating humor. Since the Swedish furniture brand is infamous for its difficult-to-follow instructions, it teasingly acknowledged this with a “failed assembly” ad, developed by German agency thjnk. Featuring jumbled copy and images to poke fun at the many mishaps associated with putting together IKEA furniture, the ad is so amusing that you almost forget you’re being sold to. 

image of ikea self-deprecating marketing campaign

And it’s not just consumer brands getting in on the fun: the state of Nebraska recently took jabs at itself in an ad campaign from its tourism department. After being named  the least travel-worthy state four years running, Nebraskans claimed a new slogan in 2018: “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” 

The copy appeared beside breathtaking nature scenes from around the state, sending a clear message that there’s plenty to do in Nebraska—if you look for it.

Comedy or tragedy?

Self-deprecating copy might be trendy, but don’t rush to hop on this bandwagon or you might miss the mark. As Nebraska expertly proved, this type of humor should still, ultimately, highlight its subject in a positive light. You want people to buy what you’re selling, after all—not view your brand as a hopeless case. 

Focus on answering your target audiences’ questions, assuaging their fears, and painting a holistic picture of your brand, and you’ll be okay. Probably. 

Or you could just get us to do it for you

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