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The Influencers

What Makes Brits Smile?

Any brand can make audiences smile, it’s just a question of timing, writes Ruairi Curran, Head of Planning at Gravity Road

What Makes Brits Smile?

Perhaps without knowing it, many of us buy into the idea that it’s only certain brands that can ‘get away’ with using humour. Right now you may be working on a brand that has, through some unspoken and mysterious collective wisdom, decided humour is not ‘on-brand’…“We’re a serious product in a serious category”, “Humour could undermine trust”, “We’re concerned the humour will distract consumers from our core message”. If the brand you’re working on has strategically meandered its way into a humour-forbidding BVI book, now’s a good time to consider challenging it. As audiences become more practised in tuning-out the brands they feel have nothing to offer them, the benefits of humour are becoming increasingly pertinent. 

Having a laugh is a fundamental of human behaviour. Raising a smile is one of the most effective communication strategies we have, well known to the waiters with the biggest tips, the Big Issue sellers with the largest customer bases, and the kids that always manage to get off the hook…they use it to stand-out and get noticed, to engender warmth and affection, to generate rapport and empathy.  

When someone makes us smile, we often find ourselves responding emotionally, before any rational reasoning has a chance to interfere, by instinctively wanting to reward what is essentially an act of generosity. There’s something of a giving/receiving going on; the giver draws upon a rare wit, creativity and charm to lift our spirits and entertain us – in turn we feel compelled to show some appreciation with anything from a wry grin to putting a hand into our pocket to part with some money. Importantly, this is a value exchange that we actively look to make in our personal lives; we meet up with friends, we mix it up in WhatsApp chat groups, we pay for Sky Cinema and NetFlix, we scroll through our Facebook feeds – searching for the thing to put a smile on our face. 

The brands that understand and tap into the power of this exchange, this shortcut to intimacy, reap the rewards - just think of the usual suspects that appear on any ranking of all-time best ads (Hamlet, Budweiser, Compare the Market), or more topically, the annual round-up of Superbowl ads (Bai being a personal favourite of recent years). And this leads us to an important, and perhaps overlooked, need for distinction: brands that have found fame and won hearts and minds with major, durable ATL campaigns continue to shape our perception of what ‘humour’ in advertising has to look like – but the diversity and flexibility of social platforms grant a far broader range of opportunities.

More and more brands that are finding it hard to get humour right ATL - mass broadcast media demand a message and tone that speaks to as many people as possible - are having better luck when they give it a go in the more permissive, nuanced spaces of digital. Our recent work for BelVita is a case in point. We knew that audiences in social spaces would not stomach the ‘brand-out’ approach that characterises the majority of the ATL work, and that we had to take a more ‘audience-first’ approach when coming up with ideas to introduce their new Breakfast biscuits. We were able to locate humour in the usage occasion of hurried mornings, which we further leveraged by centring our creative around an even more acute moment - a hurried morning on the most depressing day of the year, the third Monday in January: Blue Monday.


The relative happiness that the product can bring to someone having a hurried morning on Blue Monday opened up a unique creative opportunity for the brand. The resulting work was well received by audiences, reaching 5.7 million views and c.55% retention... good for a two minute long film. More recently research firm System1 (formerly BrainJuicer), named the ad “the most emotionally engaging ad of 2017” — based on testing of 705 award-winning or viral global TV ads and digital films among 56,400 consumers. Sarah Patterson, commercial director at System1 Research, said of the ad; “It does two things particularly well. It has a terrific emotional idea - beating the blues on Blue Monday - and it has a brilliant central character in George, the comedian guard. It can be tough to make British consumers smile, so for a British ad to get the best results out of any of the 700 we tested is quite an achievement.”

BelVita is not a brand that’s famous for being funny. But it is a brand with a marketing team that trusted their agency, that understood humour is what people look for in their feeds, and recognised that if they are going to try to interrupt the scroll, they needed to be funny – no matter what the BVI book said. 



Ruairi Curran is Head of Planning at Gravity Road

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