It's the way they tell ‘em

Having a keen sense of wit may not be an obvious asset to the communicator's skillset, but a talent for comedy is increasingly a prized trait as some brands use customer interactions as a chance to exhibit their funnier side.

Chris King, a customer manager at Sainsbury's, might not have appreciated this as he constructed his response to a letter from three year old Lily Robinson who had queried why the supermarket called one of its products tiger bread, when it looked more like the markings on a giraffe. Before long his letter was repeatedly shared online until it became a story in the mainstream press.
 
More recently, Lego's reply to seven-year-old Luka Apps after he lost his Jay ZX figure, part of the Ninjago Ultrasonic Raider set he had bought with his Christmas money, had The Sun asking: 'Is this the kindest company letter ever?'
 
The customer service representative, Richard, wrote that he had 'spoken to Sensei Wu, a master from the Ninjago line', who advised 'you must always project your Ninjago mini figures like the dragons protect the Weapons of Spinjitzu'. Richard added: 'Sensei Wu also told me it was okay to send you a new Jay...'
 
But are brands actually being more amusing or is it just that the customers have more sharing mechanisms at their disposal?
 
'It's hard to quantify whether there is a rising incidence of brands engaging in this sort of playful dialogue,' says James Withey, head of brand insight at Precise. 'However, it would be reasonable to expect that humorous relationship-building activity between brands and consumers will be an increasing trend. It's a successful way for brands to demonstrate their humanity.'
 
Certainly there are plenty more anecdotal examples that would seem to back this up. Holly Ward, managing director, consumer and digital at Fleishman Hillard, partly attributes this to the fact that customer service interactions are no longer private.
 
Ward explains: 'Customer service has become public property; everyone can see what is being said.' And brands increasingly realise that a witty response is likely to be shared on Facebook or Twitter.
 
Bureaucratic hurdles
 
There are other opportunities to be proactive, as the BigJigs toy company recently discovered: the interaction does not have to be with a customer.
 
Last October, George Poole, marketing and PR coordinator at Bigjigs Toys, which specialises in wooden railway sets, wrote to the Department of Transport offering to take over the West Coast Main Line franchise with a 'free' rail service run on 'enjoyment'. 'This company has been delivering exceptional service on time and at low cost for its customers for years,' he wrote. 'Our safety record speaks for itself, we have never had nor never will have an accident.' The Folkestone-based company posted the initial letter on its Facebook page and encouraged fans to share it in return for a chance to win a free train set. 
 
Even without the response from the Department of Transport, the letter was a hit. But after a detailed response from Mark Reach, private secretary to the Transport Secretary, in which he queried whether its wooden coaches would 'meet modern crashworthiness standards for operation on the heavy rail network', the story gained coverage on the BBC, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph. Not bad for a PR trick that presumably cost the toy manufacturer little more than the cost of a first class stamp.
 
But what works for a children's toy company might not work for all.
 
Ward explains: 'I think you have to question: why do you want to do that? And what do you want to achieve? It could be about wanting to reach a younger audience. It could be about showing your values. You can't just go all out trying to be funny. There is nothing more cringey than a Twitter feed that thinks it's funny but isn't.'
 
And not every company can get away with it. Social media experts claim it would be hard to imagine a tobacco manufacturer, for example, engaging in flippant dialogue with consumers. 'It tends to work best for brands that are more communicative anyway. Mobile services companies and retailers, for example,' Ward says.
 
'For me it boils down to three things: how fluent the organisation is on social media, whether it has a good sense of humour in its DNA, and the kind of business that it operates in,' says Louise Barfield, development director at digital marketing agency SAS. The kind of product or service on offer will determine the tone that companies can deliver.
 
'For example, a chocolate bar manufacturer presents a lower risk than an airline,' adds Barfield.
 
But brands are increasingly taking risks and having a laugh at their own expense. When disillusioned boyfriend Richard Neill moaned about being misled about menstruation on Bodyform's Facebook page, the company responded with a YouTube video Bodyform Responds: The Truth. An actress playing 'company boss Caroline Williams' admitted 'we lied to you', before explaining that the use of skydiving and mountain bike riding in Bodyform's adverts was metaphorical because men 'can't handle the truth'. The response went viral and is viewed as a good example of a reactive video that demonstrated a company with an ability to laugh at itself.
 
The Californian-based Dollar Shave Club, which delivers personal grooming items by post every month, was weeks away from losing everything and going into administration when it rebranded with a YouTube video entitled Our Blades are F**king Great that mocked major razor companies. With more than two million views in its first four days, the advert transformed the company's fortunes. About 5,000 subscribers signed up on the first day, and now Dollar Shave Club is a household name in the US.
 
How funny are you?
 
While the value of Dollar Shave Club's campaign is obvious, there is a challenge in measuring the success of these types of initiatives. 'These things are another part of the whole evaluation repertoire. You can look at the key messages and how they are playing out on social media. You can look at engagement and resonance,' Ward says. 
 
Withey suggests looking for impact by seeking an association between the activity and any changes in brand perception measures. 'For example, social media conversations provide an ideal way of measuring whether there has been a change in favourability after the dialogue has begun,' he says.
 
'The more this sort of activity is seen as being measurably successful, the more brands are likely to engage in it. It's always important, however, to ensure that there is a clear strategic or tactical rationale for engaging in this sort of dialogue.'