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How to Be Funny (In Your Marketing) – Allie LeFevere
The Agents of Change

We’re constantly on the lookout for new and creative ways to help our brands stand out from the crowd, but why aren’t more brands using humor? Look at fast food chains like Wendy’s or Taco Bell, they’re killing it on their social channels because they’ve found a successful way to merge humor into their content to engage their audience in a fun way that stands out.

Turns out, humor is the most underrated competitive advantage in the game. At least that’s what Allie LeFevere, co-founder of Obedient humor branding agency, believes. On this episode she explains how to use humor to bring more positivity and personality into your marketing.

Rich: My guest today is funnier than you. Sit with that for a while. She co-founded a humor branding agency. – the first of its kind – called Obedient, with the belief that standing out isn’t a matter of taste, it’s a matter of survival. With that ethos as the wind in their sales – that’s a visual joke, you kind of have to read it, but sales S A L E S – they launch brands and campaigns that hook customers in and keep them coming back for more.

Along with co-founder Lindsey Rush, they are informally known as the ‘bad girls of branding’. They believe that traditional marketing is dead and invite brands of all sizes and at all stages to join them in dancing on its grave in order to bring new life to their objectives.

Now they would never brag about how their work is being published in places like Vice, Vogue, Esquire, New York Magazine, and Goop. But this is an introduction, so they allowed me to make an exception. So who is this warrior of wit, this beacon of banter, this heroine of humor? None other than Allie LeFevere. Allie, welcome to the show

Allie: Oh my gosh, Rich. That was like a Shakespearean play. That was beautiful. I mean, my breath has been taken away by hearing my own bio read out loud. So, thank you.

Rich: You’re welcome. And you know, I really channeled my inner Stan Lee from back in like the 1960s, when he was writing all the comic books for Marvel, to really hit the oomph of that introduction for you.

Allie: Well, you’ve done a remarkable job. He would be incredibly proud.

Rich: Excellent. So Allie, how’d you get so funny?

Allie: Oh boy. Well, it’s so funny to have to talk about yourself being funny. There’s a lot of ego that has to coincide with that conversation. But you know, in reality I grew up in just a really funny family. I come from a very big, Italian, very outgoing, very loud, very gregarious, very silly family dynamic where everyone lives within a mile of each other back home. It’s my mom and aunts and uncles and cousins. And I just grew up in a family that loved to tease, loved to banter. we’re very witty, very clever, we’re very playful and very creative. And I just felt like I got to absorb a little bit of that.

And you know, also with that came, you know, I watch comedies. That was the thing that my family we did together. I probably watched a lot of inappropriate movies and TV as a child, but I’d like to think that it sharpened my language and palette. But yeah, it’s funny to think that, but I guess the shortest answer is my family really instilled that in me at a young age.

Rich: Maybe we’ll get into this, but you know as you’re talking and I’m just thinking about the idea of like, in part, you might be funny because you were allowed to be funny. But also because you had so much practice. Like Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours, it’s like, if you’re surrounded by people where you need to get a share of the attention and everybody’s loud and boisterous, then you are going to hone your skills. So sometimes it’s just a matter of putting yourself out there.

Allie: Yeah, I fully agree with that. And I think what makes comedy good is often it being truthful and it being relatable. And I think if you can find that marriage and then find a really clever way to spin it that’s surprising to the audience , I think that’s what makes humor good.

So there’s not really one style of humor that is preferred. There’s a million different tones of voice and ways you can approach a conversation or a joke. But I do think that if you can be honest and what you say people understand and can apply to their own lives in some way, I think that’s a really awesome way to start to hone your comedic chops.

Rich: So you basically just answered my next question, so good on you. But just maybe you can add to it. My question was going to be this, what does make something funny?

Allie: Yeah, again just to kind of reiterate what I said is the fact that, I mean at least what I think is funny, and everyone thinks different things are funny. Some people love shock value. Some people love self-deprecation. Some people like really wry humor. I tend to like a mix of really clever and wry, and then offbeat. I guess you would say more situational comedy. But I think it’s a mix of saying something truthful and relatable, but doing it in a surprising way.

Rich: Yeah, that definitely makes sense.

Allie: Yeah. Because it catches you off guard. And I think that is like the surprise factor in comedy is what elicits, I think, an organic reaction and laugh.

Rich: Right. And just thinking about the memes that I find myself laughing and snorting hardest at, it’s usually somebody who’s saying something that I thought only I was having that exact reaction to something, like an air fryer or whatever it may be, but they’re there, they’re saying it. So they’re saying something relatable, but they’re saying it in a surprising way or whatever. That’s what really catches my attention.

Allie: I fully agree. It’s someone saying something that you’ve maybe thought a million times, but never put it into words, and you’re like, “Oh my God. Yes. Yes. I think that all the time.”

Rich: Why didn’t I think of that. Yeah, exactly. So actually, while I have you on the subject, let’s talk about memes. Because I definitely see that people and brands online, I kind of feel like I’m jumping ahead, but brands online use memes as a way of connecting with people. And I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts on the use of memes on social media and other platforms for brands.

Allie: It’s funny you bring that up because I was just talking about this this morning with my business partner. So, I’m going to answer your question, but let me just back up just a hair. So a lot of the work we do is much more focused on kind of foundational messaging and language around a brand. So everything from like names, taglines, some of that foundational copy, or ad campaigns.

And so there’s a lot of content that’s degenerated through memes or kind of meme accounts that is a little bit more churn and burn copy. And so we don’t really as an agency do that, but definitely appreciate that. I mean, I definitely think that there are some meme accounts and some brands that do it really, really well. I think that it’s the ones that are very much attuned to the zeitgeists that are ahead of the curve in terms of jumping on a joke or a trend before it gets played. So I totally give accolades to brands who know how to leverage humor in a very timely way. And what we were talking about earlier, my business partner and I, is that what you see is that by the time most brands get their paws on a meme or a joke, it is so played out and it’s been in the zeitgeists for 18 months. And to us, we no longer think it’s funny or clever. But again, a lot of people might still laugh and might like it and might find it relatable. I think that’s when things start to get watered down, because the joke has been told so many times. I just don’t think the reactions are as surprising, or energized, or excited by something that you’ve probably seen en masse.

But again, if you do a timeline, you do it well, and you do it when it kind of hits the social platforms, then I think, yeah. Good on you, for sure. I think memes are effective.

Rich: If legal has approved your meme, probably it’s too late. That’s kind of what I’m hearing from you.

Allie: 100%. I mean, that’s kind of what happens is that when you get bigger brands, they do have to run it through legal. And first of all, legal a lot of times doesn’t get it. And then by the time they give it the green light, it’s over.

Rich: Right? So unless you’re marketing something like Life Alert or those chairs that bring people upstairs, probably you should just be putting it out there as quickly as possible.

Allie: I fully agree.

Rich: All right. So why do you think humor works in marketing and branding? Why is this an important tool?

Allie: Yeah. Well, I mean, we built our entire agency around this idea that fun sells. And why we think fun and humor works so effectively is for a few different reasons. But I think one is it’s incredibly humanizing. You can take an idea that is very complex or confusing, and you can make it really relatable, and you can make it something that’s easily understood.

You could take something that’s maybe very jarring or maybe a little taboo, and you can make it approachable. You can take something that feels very distant. Like you don’t really get it, it doesn’t really relate to you in your everyday life, and you make it something that people can access. And just humanizing is that it feels like when you say something truthful, and then you draw out a relatable insight from a consumer. It makes them feel like they know you and they understand you and they get you. And so I think it humanizes a brand.

It’s also, humor is a give before it’s a take. You know, when you make someone laugh and – that’s not even just through branding, but just in everyday relationships – when you make someone laugh or make someone smile or elicit any sort of a positive emotion, you’ve deposited in that relationship bank account, you’ve given them something for free. You’ve given them a feel-good emotion that they didn’t otherwise have access to. And so people do feel endeared to you as a brand. When they’ve already received something so powerful and positive, and everyone wants to feel good and have the best parts of them drawn to the surface. And so it allows them to engage in a much more authentic way.

I also think all good humor is truthful. And so marketing and branding is notoriously not the most honest profession. It’s a lot of snake oil salesman that exist, it’s often very predatory, it preys on the perceived fears and inadequacies of their consumer. And so if you use humor, you have to tell a true story. So suddenly now you have transparency and honesty that gets brought into branding. And I think that’s something that people desire and it’s just not something they see en masse in this industry.

So should I keep going? What else? What else do you want me to say? Because I could keep going forever. I obviously co-built my whole agency around this idea because I believe it is such a powerful tool that’s so underutilized.

Rich: So does humor then work for every brand in every industry, or is there a reason why so many brands haven’t embraced humor as a way of connecting with their audience?

Allie: I’m a believer that it can work in every industry, but I think that that’s where you really have to have a laser sharp sense of your audience and how to really wield humor in a very tight way. You have to make sure that you have equal parts empathy and an ability to maybe craft a narrative or story or funny piece of copy. Because if a joke is not effective for a joke sake, humor is not effective just to be funny. Like it has to do some heavy lifting. It has to serve a purpose. It has to be effective. It has to yield results.

And just to give you an example, we’ve done work for an MS organization. We’ve done work for an anti-racism organization. We’ve done work for a private investigator, law firms, which aren’t notoriously funny. And most recently we’ve done some work with COVID-19. And those are very sensitive projects that we had to approach very thoughtfully, very strategically. And that’s where I think using humor as a tool for relatability and approachability is really effective.

So it’s not saying something that’s going to get necessarily a guffaw or just a giant laugh. We’re not looking to elicit tears running down your face because you’re cracking up so hard. We just said something surprising in a way that you go, ‘oh yeah, I get that’. Or ‘oh, wow. That’s me.’ Or, ‘Oh, wow. I’ve felt that before’. And I think humor is an awesome vehicle to get that reaction out of someone.

But again, you have to be very sensitive and very thoughtful of how you deploy it, because that can have really, really bad repercussions if you’re dealing in an industry that needs a lot of nuance and thoughtfulness.

Rich: I absolutely agree. And these days there’s just so much political correctness and lots of raw feelings out there on both sides. And there are a lot of nuances, to use your word, lost in translations and emojis. So how do you deal with sensitive audiences or sensitive topics? You kind of touched upon it. You’ve had some that you’ve had to deal with, so how do you know how not to go over that line? Or do you just say, look, we’re going to piss some people off, we’re still moving forward with this.

Allie: Well, I would say as a rule of thumb as an agency, we first and foremost never punch down with copy or humor. So I think that that’s a good starting point. I think also we don’t operate in shock value for the sake of shock value. Sometimes shock value is necessary because you want to deliver a very surprising message and you have to take a bold stance. But there are some brands that play in shock value that are just meant to drive maybe combative responses, and we don’t really operate in that way.

But you have to understand, you have to really know your audience and understand your audience and recognize that not everyone’s going to get it, not everyone’s going to understand it, that it’s not going to make sense to them, to necessarily the masses all the time. But if you have a very deep understanding of who you’re trying to speak to and you’re crafting your language and your tone and being very meticulous with the way you’re structuring copy and messaging, then you’re going to land on your feet with the right audience.

Also too, is like when we’re writing copy, sometimes we will think of a very divisive way to say it. And then they’re sometimes going, can we say this? Like, we’re not one trick ponies here. Like, can we think of other ways to say it that are equally as effective, equally surprising, and that aren’t necessarily in this circumstance going to be polarizing, because maybe polarizing isn’t what we want to do here.

So for example, when you’re dealing with more sensitive topics. For example the MS or anti-racism things that we’ve dealt with recently. Yeah, maybe polarizing isn’t the right approach. It’s like, okay, we can say something firm and bold and surprising, but this is just a tender topic as is, we don’t need to stir the pot more. We can say something effective without it being problematic.

So yeah, we labor over copy for very long stretches of time changing one little word that we think might make all the difference because it often does. And we’re like, gosh, if we get a weird feeling, someone could misinterpret that as we will change it because we try to think, okay, let’s just try to keep this as clean and tight as possible.

Rich: So I am kind of curious about how obedient works with your clients. Like, how do you know if they’re going to be funny enough? Now we’ve talked about some topics that maybe are difficult, but then there’s a whole other category of businesses that just aren’t funny. The owners aren’t funny, the marketers aren’t funny. They come to you. Do you ever just say, look, there’s nothing funny here, and just move on or you always try and find it?

Allie: Well, I think we can always find the funny. We can take any brand and we can brand it in a really compelling way. I think that the thing we’ve been really fortunate is that generally when people seek us out, they know that they don’t have maybe the chops to do it, or maybe their approach has no longer yielded the results they want, or their messaging is getting lost in a sea of sameness, or their ideas are watered down, or they recognize they’re kind of stumbling off the gate in terms of when they’re releasing something into the world.

So, yeah. So the good side is that a lot of times our clients are coming to us saying, “Hey, we really need you to kind of own this whole piece of our brand.” So from tip to tail, we need a new tagline, email campaign, press releases, web copy, ad campaigns. So we’re really just kind of, we’re the voice. When I say we’re the voice, we flex into a million different voices, but ultimately, we really just take on the whole messaging piece.

Now, there are often circumstances we find ourselves in where we’re owning a big chunk of it. But then we have to ultimately pass it back to the marketing team, and there are sometimes, the marketing team does a really good job of like mimicking what we’ve done. And there are times, where I think like any creative endeavor, people want to put their stamp on something, and they want to feel like they had their voice in it. And so they muck it up and they watered down and they kind of ruin it. And so we’ve had that experience, too. I mean, we joke all the time, we’ve never received a client edit that we think has helped anything we’ve delivered. Other than if anything is factually incorrect, most clients either come from a place of maybe a little bit of fear or being a little reserved, or they just think their ideas – even if they feel like they’re not in alignment with anything we’ve developed – are they want them to be heard. And so, yeah, it sucks. And the good news is I think we develop really nice client relationships where we are not afraid to push back. We don’t always win every battle, but we definitely fight them as professionally and kindly as we can. So, yeah, it’s not a flawless system.

Rich: So you mentioned a few words here, language, tone, copy, voice. So it sounds like a lot of being funny is the written or spoken word. Can you give us any tips on how to structure copy, headlines, subject lines, body copy, whatever, that would make them a little punchier or a little bit funnier for our intended audience?

Allie: Yeah, I would say, gosh, that’s a good question. because there’s just a million different approaches you can take, right?

Rich: Yeah. And that’s what I was afraid of. So if you want to choose one and just say, well, here’s one thing or two things that you can do to make your copy a little bit funnier or punchier, that’d be awesome.

Allie: Yeah. I mean, I think in terms of like, I’ll talk about a headline. A headline, the whole point of a headline is to grab attention and make people continue reading. It’s supposed to grab a part of the narrative and grab a part of the story from the page, but it doesn’t have to tell the whole story and it shouldn’t. And that’s where sub copy, like a sub-headline or body copy comes into play. So I think what people often do is they get caught up, that one line isn’t telling the whole story. And when you start to add things on, you water down the punch and the boldness and what makes something dynamic. And then it just becomes a rambling, long piece of copy that people aren’t going to engage in.

So I would say, if I was telling people how to write a headline without giving specifics, I would say, okay, let’s say you write your headline. Can you write it in less words? And can you write it in less words than that? And when you get down to, I mean 10 words or less max, I would say if you can do a good headline in six to eight words or sometimes less than that, I think you’ve probably tightened the joke, or you’ve allowed the punch, you strengthened the line. Because I think people tend to play the game of more is more, and more is definitely not more when it comes to language, and less is 100% more. And people, like you get to use the other pieces of copy to tell the story.

You don’t have to say everything in every page and every line. That’s why you have a website. That’s why you have social posts. That’s why you have email marketing. That’s why you have other brand components that you get to disseminate your message, even though it has a cohesive through line through multiple avenues. So yeah, I think that would be definitely one thing I would suggest.

Rich: Yeah. What’s that famous saying, brevity is wit, right. So it’s all about, you know, like sometimes especially we’re talking about things that are funny, that are words, right? I mean, obviously there’s the pie in the face, the fart noises, whatever that might make people laugh. But the bottom line is, we’re talking about being clever as well. Being funny, being surprising, but also being clever in getting your message across.

You’ve talked about finding your hook. How does that fit into this entire conversation? How does that fit into humor and being funny?

Allie: Yeah, well, we always see a hook. We call it a hook. It’s for us. I mean, some people might liken it to a slogan or a tagline. It doesn’t have to be the same thing. A hook doesn’t have to be front facing. We think of the term ‘hook’ as basically what is kind of the one line that is the consumer-centric reason that your brand exists? Like why would a consumer care about your brand and how do you say that in one line? And then that becomes the bedrock for every other piece of copy that you develop. It becomes the trunk of the tree that has many, many branches.

So for example, our hook is, ‘fun sells’. And it also happens to be our tagline, but it doesn’t have to be, but it is because we wrote it in a way that was tight. But ‘fun sells’ is our core message, and everything else we talk about as an agency, we write about as an agency, we have on our various social platforms or in pitches we do, et cetera. It really distills down to that idea of we believe that fun is the most effective tool at selling products and services. And that’s our short, little button way of saying it.

So I think that I would suggest everyone should have one for their business. Again, it doesn’t have to be branded. It doesn’t have to be front facing. But what is the tight one line of, again, the consumer-centric reason your brand exists? Like why does it matter to your audience, your consumer? Why do they care? And then it becomes again, that’s the north star. So when you start to write copy or you start to develop your brand message, if it doesn’t all funnel back to that in some meaningful way, then you’ve lost the thread. And I think that’s where you start to see copy that gets really chaotic and messy, and it feels like you’re kind of engaging with multiple brands in one. And that can feel very jarring for a consumer experience. So, a hook is good.

Rich: So you mentioned earlier on about there being different styles of humor, different types of humor. Can you kind of expand a little bit on that? Like what are some or all the different types of humor and how do we know which ones we should be using?

Allie: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s definitely a personal choice for a brand, but they all elicit different emotions. So I’ll kind of run through some common ones. So, self-deprecating, very bold, shock value, something that’s very dry and straightforward, something that’s very silly and off-beat, something that’s very playful and uses asides, something that’s very clever and maybe thought provoking. Yeah, those are some I would say big just juxtaposition. Those are some big daddies that I guess most people, if you heard those terms, you would kind of have an understanding of what that is. But the thing about that is every style of humor elicits a different reaction.

So for example, when you use self-deprecating humor, it’s very endearing. And it definitely evens the playing field between you and your audience. You feel relatable and approachable. And that’s where you strip out a lot of ego and you strip out a lot of people perceiving that your brand has some superiority that makes them feel like they don’t know how to engage in a meaningful way. So that’s kind of one style.

And then you do something that is maybe very straightforward. So it’s just kind of, I’m trying to think of a good example of straightforward humor. Think of it as like a professor in a college class, they’re kind of given you like no fluff, no frills, no BS. They’re kind of hitting you straight. Like that elicits trust. When you don’t have to fluff up copy with a lot of flowery language or too many asides or too much exposition, then that there’s something really trust provoking, something that is just like you shoot it to them straight.

And yeah, there’s so many different styles that are elicit a different reaction. So it’s basically like understanding your brand going okay, who is our audience? What do they need to feel from us? What do we want to evoke in them? Ultimately, how do we want to be seen? So when we do intakes with brands, ours is very, I would say, pretty different than maybe other agencies approaches. And I can’t speak too broadly because I don’t work at other agencies, but just based on what we’ve been witnessed to, is that we’re very concerned with the consumer. The consumer emotion strategy, that’s what we call it. It’s like, what is the emotional status of the audience and how do we really reach them in a meaningful and effective way. So those are all the things that we’re trying to understand.

So, you know, we’ll get a brand and it’s like they might want to be very silly and playful. And we’re like, that is not the tone that’s going to elicit the goal that’s really going to allow you to reach your goals or engage with your audience in a very meaningful effect of long-term way. Like you need to take this stance because this is what they’re going to respond to. So, yeah, it’s really fun because we get to then, you know, dial up tones and styles, and really like dip into different tactics and approaches, which allows every project to feel fresh for us.

Rich: Awesome. Now obviously this does not impact me, but some of my listeners may be wondering, what if I’m not funny? What do you say when somebody thinks they’re not funny?

Allie: Well, Rich, I mean, clearly you take yourself out of the equation because yes, you are hilarious.

Rich: My humor comes from absolutely being tortured growing up, and so I use humor to survive. But you know, other people, maybe they had a normal, healthy childhood. So what do we say to them?

Allie: Well, I mean, there is that old adage that humor often comes from a dark place. That’s where funny people are spawned from. I would say that I get this question a lot actually, so I should have some prepared speech for it. So we don’t really work with personal brands. Because I think it’s a lot harder, you can’t brand someone inauthentically as hilarious and funny if that’s not innate to their personality. So then in that case I would say, really lean into what your strengths and skillset are. Even though I believe in humor, if you’re a personal brand and that is not innate to who you are and you don’t feel like you can execute that effectively, then it’s going to feel very out of sorts or contrived if you attempt it. So I would say maybe don’t take that path.

Now you might be able to tag someone in that can help you kind of use your existing language and say how do we just maybe take it up one level, so that it’s still very much feels like you, but it’s maybe done in a little bit more surprising way than you. Or let’s just kind of nurture it so that it feels like it’s in alignment, but it still maybe lands and is a little bit more compelling

If you’re dealing with a brand, if you yourself own a brand or maybe are on the marketing side of a brand, it really isn’t about your voice. It’s about the voice that’s going to be the most effective with the consumer. So I think that’s where people get a little bit too caught up in maybe their own personality or your own style. Unless you’re super intimately woven into your brand – even us – we need to step back from Obedient all the time and go, what’s the most effective voice to use with Obedient that will help us engage with our consumers and client base. Because Lindsay and I have different humor preferences between the two of us, but they overlap, but different. And then in terms of all the different shades of humor we like to dabble in, we know that there are kind of two big daddies that are the most effective for Obedient, so we have to let the other ones go. So it’s really understanding what your consumer going to respond to. What does your audience need to hear? What emotions do you want to listen? And that’s where you have to start to either. Yeah. I mean tagging people who can help, right? Doesn’t mean you have to bring in someone to do everything, but maybe doing something to at least help you get some of your core language down that you can hopefully build from.

Rich: All right. Allie, this has been awesome. I’m sure a lot of people will want to learn more about your agency, see if they’re a good fit, learn more about you. Where can we send them online?

Allie: Oh, Rich, you have been such a treat to speak with. Thank you so much for letting me just poetically speak. I may be really tight when I write, but I am long-winded to the max, I’m sure, while I’m speaking. You can find Obedient at obedientagency.com, and @obedient agency all over the interwebs. And then I’m Allie LeFevere, you can follow me if you’d like, but all the good stuff is probably over at Obedient.

Rich: Awesome. Allie, thank you so much.

Allie: Thank you.

Show Notes:

Allie LeFevere is on a mission to make marketing fun again! Her agency, Obedient, takes a playful, fun, and humorous approach to marketing that has elevated her clients to new heights and growth. Check out their website to see what they’re up to and how they could help your brand stand out with humor.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.