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Brand MarketingJuly 15, 2022

Why Whimsical Branding Works For Some Companies… But Not Others

July 15, 2022
Elena Author Photo Framed
Elena Prokopets
Freelance Writer & Content Strategist

Over the years, the world of advertising gave us such weird masterpieces, such as “Taste the Rainbow” commercials by Skittles (who knew a giraffe can be milked?), “Wassup” by Budweiser (need we remind you?), or “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” by Old Spice (Back to me, back to your man, now back to me).

Absurd, audacious, and stupid-funny — these ads rocked the boat back in their day. But should all brands channel their “weird”?

In this article, we take a look at some recent examples of whimsical branding that worked and whimsical branding that flopped — with takeaways for other companies.

Toot: Klarna “The Four Quarter-Sized Cowboys” 2021 Super Bowl Ad

Klarna, a popular buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) app, already had a strong brand presence in the European markets. But its brand consideration and usage trailed behind in the more competitive US market.

To engage American consumers, Klarna went with the biggest advertising opportunity available — Super Bowl.

Together with LA-based creative agency, Mirimar, Klarna developed a 30-second glimpse into a whimsical Western-inspired world — where four tiny Maya Rudolphs miraculously buy a pair of the perfect pink boots “made for walkin’”.

“The campaign reflects Klarna’s brand philosophy of combining quirky wit and humor with a stylized aesthetic to create immersive new experiences to engage consumers,” said David Sandstrom, chief marketing officer at Klarna.

Why This Campaign Worked

Local cultural references. Klarna is a foreign brand. To show proximity to the local audiences, they leveraged wholesome all-American references — Western movies, cowboy boots, and thick Southern accents.

The ad features a song from iconic American actress Nancy Sinatra (daughter of Frank Sinatra) and modern American sweetheart — singer, actress, and comedian Maya Rudolph. Their fictional world feels familiar, but not cliche. All of these elements made Klarna's ad fun, relatable, and memorable.

By the way, it’s not Klarna’s first time artfully playing the “cultural card”. For a 2020 US “Swedish for smoother shopping” campaign, the brand introduced Americans to classic Swedish movies with original subtitles, featuring funny brand inserts.

New dubbing for a classic Swedish movie. Source: Mirimar

Strong brand connotations. Despite being heavily oriented towards local audiences, the ad is distinctively Klarna. Pink boots are a nod to Klarna’s signature Millennial pink color they’ve been using since 2017. Then, the ad also takes a funny approach to the “Pay in Four'' slogan with a quick punchline — which makes it even more memorable.

The Takeaways: Align your campaign to the occasion. The Super Bowl is a major event and can generate huge exposure for new brands. Yet, 78% of consumers look at Super Bowl ads as a source of entertainment. Only 10% admit that Super Bowl ads influence their buying behaviors.

Klarna cleverly choose to keep its ad short and snappy. It was designed for the top of the brand funnel — building brand recall and improving brand awareness and consideration. And it does so in a quirky, funny way.

Soft Toot: Postmates: “Don't Cookbook'

Source: Working Not Working

Postmates had a rough year after the pandemic. To “celebrate” restaurant reopenings and cheer up kitchen-fatigued people, the brand came up with an absolutely useless, but irresistibly attractive, “Don’t Cookbook”.

The artfully designed cookbook features snarky anti-recipes about popular munchies. Such as a “bratwurst that doesn’t judge your cooking skills” or “tips for riding a big Taco”. Instead of cooking the dish, you are gently prompted to order it from Postmates using a QR code at the bottom of the page.

As the Postmate team explains:

"The Don’t Cookbook is the easiest cookbook ever because, well, it involves no cooking. If you’re looking for an easy cookbook, this might honestly be too easy. Close the pantry, turn off the oven, put away the plates. Because tonight, you’re not cooking. And tomorrow, you’re not cooking. And next month? Well, you get the idea."

The test run of 200 copies sold out in an hour with some 1,000 people joining the waitlist in the next few days.

Why This Campaign (Mostly) Worked

Artfully executed. Zany but artful illustrations, paired with a sarcastic copy, made this pointless book a page-turner. It could have ended up looking like your average marketing brochure people throw away. Instead, Postmates' creative team turned standard collateral into an iconic coffee table book your hipster buds will be proud to show you.

Creating a physical branded asset is also an interesting idea for a digital-only brand with no tangible product. It’s original, but also savvy. The “Don’t Cookbook” remains in people’s homes and silently reminds them of Postmate the same way OOH or digital retargeting ads do, but at no extra cost.

Supporting a great cause. During the 2021 launch, Postmates promised to donate a percentage of all profits from the book sale to charities — and mostly those helping affected restaurant workers. The campaign also raised awareness around the issues at hand and prompted more people to support their local eateries by ordering take-out.

Nevertheless, Postmate also retained some profits — plus, it gained indirect branding benefits in form of higher brand awareness and more favorable brand associations.

Somewhat poor timing. The “Don’t Cookbook” pokes fun at pandemic-prompted kitchen fatigue and lack of outdoor dining options. But at the time of release, a lot of people were still coping with more gruesome issues — loss of income, loss of family members, increased social isolation, etc.

For some, kitchen burnout just didn’t feel like a matter to moan over. Likewise, not everyone was ready for cheeky humor. The initial book release might have been a bit too soon. Still, it did generate a ton of positive buzz at that time.

The Takeaways: Bold branding decisions pay off. Postmates came up with a fresh marketing idea in the digital-first world — launching physical stuff. That’s something competing brands like DoorDash or Deliveroo never did. Also, the campaign had a social component to it, which further amplified its initial reach.

Boot: Taco Bell: “The Grande Escape” 2022 Super Bowl Ad

Taco Bell has “whimsical” wired into its DNA. The brand is the proud creator of numerous wacky rap songs about Chicken Burrito, Enchirito, and Mexican Pizza among other menu items. Mexican Pizza was even extended into a Broadway musical production with Dolly Parton and Doja Cat (which has been postponed several times already).

The Taco Bell Twitter account is an industry-standard in “humor” and “personality” done right. And the team is known for its memorable, mind-boggling, and hilarious commercials launched in the past.

But for this year's Super Bowl ad, Taco Bell’s creative genius was largely misunderstood. “The Grande Escape" landed at the bottom of this year’s list of Super Bowl ads — with a 1.5 stars rating from the Ad Age critics.

Why This Campaign Didn’t Work

Bashing the competition. The ad opens with some sad clowns and an evil Ronald McDonald in a school canteen. It felt like a nod to Mcdonald's, but not a graceful one. Their message (if there was one) felt like a cryptic dig at the competitor, which doesn’t sit well with most people.

If Taco Bell wanted to engage in some good brand rivalry, they should have made the reference more obvious and good-naturedly funny. The long-standing Burger King vs Mcdonald's marketing rivalry is a great example of how brands can exchange friendly gibes.

Lacks a clear brand narrative. Doja Cat — the star of the ad — zooms around a town in an SUV, turning into a cabriolet. Then ends up in the drive-through with her friends. The ad’s aesthetic appeal doesn’t compensate for a missing narrative.

The “escapist” theme of driving away into a fantastic world of wonder felt trite this year. A ton of pandemic-era marketing carried a ton of “escaping the gloomy reality” and “looking to the bright future” narratives.

Taco Bell’s 2022 Super Bowl ad also felt similar to the 2021 Mountain Dew Super Bowl commercial, which also featured a fantasy world and a pointless road trip. But while Mountain Dew’s had a stronger psychedelic, trippy art vibe, Taco Bell’s ad flickered from whimsical to normal to a “cool normal” vibe just too many times.

Too long. 30 seconds is the go-to length for Super Bowl commercials. Taco Bell’s 2022 ad runs a whole minute. In the absence of a narrative and a few punchlines, it felt dragged out. And, unfortunately, Doja Cat's makeup close-ups and flying clothes don’t make up for it.

The Takeaways: Jab, jab, hook — Super Bowl commercials have to be punchy. You need to get the ball rolling fast and deliver a homerun message. Remember, you’re also competing with viewers’ urge to grab more snacks or take a bathroom break. This year, Taco Bell didn’t win that battle.

Toot: US Consumer Product Safety Commission Social Media Accounts

US Consumer Product Safety Commission (USCPSC) is a small government agency on a big mission. They inform the public about product safety precautions and day-to-day dangers.

It’s hardly a glamorous job — most people are numb to safety warnings and “boring”, but often life-saving, safety instructions.

So, Joseph Galbo, a former advertising executive, decided to try a new approach: add a sprinkle of “insane” into “safety”. USCPSC social media accounts became home to stories about “evil blenders”, “suspiciously large sheep”, and “angry roasted turkeys” among other critters.

Joseph Galbo explained his creative choices to the Verge:

“I came up with a two-pronged approach. There was going to be serious messaging for our recalls and our press releases. Any of the regulatory work we do was going to have that professional government flavor to it. But then for the safety messaging, we were going to go totally bold.

“We were going to go super off-the-wall surrealist, whatever it takes to get this message out there. Bare-knuckle marketing, I guess you’d call it. I said, ‘Let’s do an experiment. Let’s test this out.’”

His test turned into a new, winning social media strategy for the brand — harnessing a ton of publicity and sky-high engagement rates.

Why This Campaign Works

So bad, it’s good. The campaign visuals have a brutal 90s Internet vibe. Aesthetically, they sit somewhere in between 9GAG memes and low-budget PSA commercials. The contents and texts are mostly ridiculous. Yet, they do the job — draw the audience’s attention to “boring” safety announcements.

Though sometimes the team takes too far on absurdity — case in point, the flying toasters image and messaging are a bit too bizarre to be taken seriously.

Embedded virality. Because this type of content isn’t something you’d expect from a government bureau, it took off fast. People liked, reposted, and commented on their posts like never before.

USCPSC content has two components of viral memes — absurdity and inside-joke quality. People related to the cultural references wired into the visuals. The team also reinforces the reliability factor by tying the memes to different holidays — the 4th of July, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, or even National Piña Colada day. This further improves shareability.

The Takeaways: There’s no such thing as a boring product industry. There’s just boring copywriting and advertising. If all your competitors sound formal and act corporate, it doesn’t mean your brand personality has to be the same.

When done right, going against the grain often pays off and helps with brand differentiation.

Soft Boot: BMW USA 2022: Zeus & Hera Super Bowl Ads

After several years of skipping out, BMW USA decided to return to the Super Bowl this year. For its comeback, the brand choose to go with a celebrity-led, humorous ad.

You have Zeus (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Hera (played by Salma Hayek) acting like an average, empty-nester couple. They move to Palm Springs, get a fancy house, mingle with the neighbors, and chill by the pool.

The punchline is that Zeus is always bothered by people asking him to light things up with his magical lightning-throwing fingers. As he grows more annoyed with that, Hera buys him a new electric BMW and they happily drive around town.

The ad was a step away from BMW’s previous largely inspirational, emotion-driven campaigns like the BMW M promo, released later in 2022. The brand tried to be “fun”, which was a step away from the usual. Though BMW’s ad squeezed some giggles out of viewers, it could have done more.

Why This Campaign (Mostly) Didn’t Work

An original spin on the standard “happy family” idea. Most car makers market to families with kids or two young single high-earning adults. BMW engaged a secondary profitable target audience — older couples without kids and with extra disposable income. They also made the “happy family” trope less obvious by making Greek Gods the protagonists.

Still, the ad felt somewhat banal. Zeus acts like a retired executive who no longer knows what to do with his life (apart from buying a fancy car). Also, “moving to Palm Springs” itself is a cliche — BMW could have taken creativity a notch further.

Confusing value proposition. The main messaging boils down to this: Zeus is tired of charging things for others and messing up electricity all the time. That’s why he’s so excited to drive an electric BMW. But can’t he just as easily fire up his car and end up in an accident because of his “electricity” issues?

It’s not quite obvious where the team was going with their pitch and how the on-screen action illustrates the greatness of an e-vehicle. Given that this is a Super Bowl ad, you can’t leave viewers wondering.

The Takeaways: Successful marketing is constant experimentation. BMW admirably tried something new in their brand marketing this year, but their idea wasn’t fully “baked”. They selected a promising and under-marketed secondary audience but failed to articulate a clear value proposition.

Our advice? Conduct in-depth audience research before releasing major campaigns and A/B test your creative pitches to understand which options perform better.

Final Thoughts

Creativity is a complex matter. Some wild and wacky ideas turn into celebrated ad campaigns — while others make consumers wonder if your brand went cray cray.

Bold brand marketing requires meticulous preparation. So, before you put forward your quirkiness, soft-test the idea with your target audiences. Do they relate to the humor? Do they like the aesthetics? Do they get where you are going with this?

The “crazy part” should never overshadow your brand’s overall ethos. Use the whimsy to amplify your brand differentiation and existing associations, rather than cultivate new values.

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