Sales strategy: Funny business

How humour can be effective in unhappy times.

It’s been the winter and now spring of our collective discontent. Those in the business of selling aren’t finding buyers. And those buying appear immune to most sales pitches. How to cut through the pervasive gloom? Try using humour.

Since the early 1990s, Second City Communications has used the tools of its trade — sketch comedy — to help companies develop new, creative ways of getting the word out, whether for a marketing campaign, an internal learning and training initiative or an attempt to get people thinking about an old brand in new ways. “For something to be funny, it’s also got to be true,” explains Steve Johnston, president of Second City Communications, North America. “That’s what gives this kind of messaging its stickiness.”

Judging by the list of clients using Second City’s services, including Farmers Insurance Group in Los Angeles, ConAgra Foods in Omaha, Neb., and the North American edition of The Economist, it’s clearly on to something that connects.

Take IBM Canada’s experience. The technology company wanted more retailers to sign up for its customer service offerings and decided to get more creative about its efforts. That led marketing manager Dave Rodgerson to Second City to do some brainstorming. “We started with something pretty basic — a panel of talking heads discussing customer service,” Rodgerson recalls. Second City suggested a talk-show format — with a twist.

IBM Canada invited an audience of actual and prospective clients to Second City’s stage in downtown Toronto. They also invited retail industry experts, among them Elizabeth Evans, director of the Ted Rogers School of Retail Management at Ryerson University, and Chris Johnston, vice-president of apparel at Wal-Mart Canada, to make up the panel. Lee Smart, a creative director at Second City Communications, moderated. The topic: what makes for great retail experiences. And the audience voted on the best answers.

Once underway, the discussion was interrupted by an apparently unexpected visit from self-proclaimed “retail guru” Dr. Dash Walmsly, author of Mad Dash: 20 Tips to Making a Run for Success. To the strains of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It,” Dash bounded onstage, proclaimed himself an “experi-expert” (someone who specializes in the customer service experience) and proceeded to mock — albeit gently — the noble profession of retail consultant.

The idea, Second City’s Johnston explains, is for the Dash character to ham up all the bad sales advice these execs had heard over the years. IBM Canada could then use Dash as a foil for the sound customer-service principles embodied by the company’s offerings. “The audience was laughing,” says Rodgerson. “But more importantly, they were paying attention.”

Evans agrees. “It was engaging for everyone,” she says. “It brought content through survey, discussion, expert opinion, trade show demonstration and, of course, humour.” The format, she says, was effective for the goals of the event. It wouldn’t, she allowed, necessarily be as effective for an in-depth discussion of a topic — though it could work well as a jumping-off point.

Once the event was over, Second City worked with IBM Canada on three videos developing the Dash Walmsly character, then posted them to a micro-website. “Each video ended with a hook,” says Rodgerson. “If you’d like to get better advice, come to the IBM Canada website and download it.”

Some might question whether using humour runs the risk of subverting a company’s message. But Second City’s chief operating officer Tom Yorton allays such concerns. “The point is to get the comedy to work for the client’s goals,” he says. “If we subverted our clients’ purpose, we wouldn’t be in business.”

Rodgerson is certainly sold. “I sent out links to the Dash videos to some customer service bloggers I follow,” Rodgerson says. “A number of them posted the links on Twitter.” In the days after, traffic at the IBM Canada Retail page increased considerably.

Though cagey about giving out concrete traffic or sales figures for proprietary reasons, Rodgerson says the experiment was an overall success. So much so, it was taken to a retail conference in Montreal on March 30 and put on by the Conseil Québécois du commerce de détail, which represents the retail industry in Quebec.

And that’s no joke.