It was not your typical PR effort. During last year’s holiday season transportation company CSX again rolled out its “Claus Conspiracy” campaign, after first launching it in late 2013. The campaign features faux-conspiracy theorist Craig Waarheid, whose job is to convince the public that Santa Claus works with CSX to help deliver Christmas presents. With its corporate tongue-firmly-tucked-in-cheek, CSX issued a release titled, “CSX Responds to Claus Conspiracy Assertions.” It read: “CSX has taken a number of actions recently to respond to assertions made by conspiracy theorist Craig Waarheid. Craig continues to publicize his theory about Santa using CSX trains to deliver presents to children, and CSX is promising to provide full disclosure regarding his findings.”
A previous employee of CSX, Waarheid was rummaging through his old pictures from his CSX days when he spotted clues showing a relationship between CSX and Santa Claus.
The clues, of course, are ladled out on Waarheid’s Facebook and Twitter pages, a dedicated Claus Conspiracy website and via video on “Intrigue TV.” Along with the clues is a key point: CSX in particular and freight rail in general are the most fuel-efficient way to move goods on land.
The Claus Conspiracy is a prime example of how brands can deploy parody in communications. But there’s truth in jest: Parody can help companies cut through the proverbial clutter and humanize their message. Using parody plays into social channels and can appeal to millennials, who were raised on irreverence and now are starting to enter the management ranks. Has the cold-sober approach to branding run its course?
Dying is easy, comedy is hard. Similarly, using parody for business communications is fraught with risk. PR managers must make sure the parody is in line with its audience and doesn’t trivialize or denigrate the brand (or its employees).
“It’s more about defining your core values rather than letting the situations define you,” said John Claybrooks, global director of brand and digital media at CSX. “You have to know where the line is and make sure the message is tasteful and doesn’t go beyond the pale.”
The CSX parody provided encouraging returns. The Claus Conspiracy website received more than 29,000 views during the month-long promotion (December 2014) and generated more than 36,500 social engagements (likes, comments and shares) during that period. Overall, the effort generated nearly 3.3 million impressions.
Claybrooks recommended three tips for how to succcessfully use parody in business communications:
1. Huddle with your marketing agency to determine how the campaign will resonate with your various audience(s)
2. Route the ideas internally to make sure key executives are abreast of the idea/parody
3. Make sure the campaign closely aligns with brand attributes and can improve people’s lives
Aside from being a branding tool, parody also is shaping up to be a significant component in the shifting tides of content marketing.
“One reason you’re seeing more parody is that content marketing is shifting from ‘storytelling’ to ‘storymaking,’” said Al Leach, president and chief strategy officer at MMI.
It’s important, Leach stressed, that PR managers understand the distinction between the two disciplines.
“With storytelling you have in-house material; announcements and noteworthy news about the brand that you use as a hook to tell a story,” he said. “But storymaking is development: taking an original idea and adding original elements to make a story that will fit within your brand strategy.”
Another element of using parody in communications is to play it straight...almost. With a dry-humor approach, you must provide your audience with a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” that the campaign is meant to infuse fun into the brand.
Take Vistage International, which provides peer advisory groups for CEOs and other business leaders. In a 2012 blog post the company announced two initiatives: Vistage Kidz and Vistage Séance.
Vistage Kidz is a group for kids, run by kids and “facilitated by mini-Chairs, who will be screened for leadership skills [and] the ability to sit still for more than 10 minutes.”
Vistage Séance is designed to extend the Vistage experience, from cradle to grave. It’s a pretty straightforward message—that was distributed on April Fool’s Day. The blog posts have run for the last three years—all on April Fool’s—with updates on the two, er, initiatives. The blog posts are distributed throughout Vistage’s online and social channels.
“The use of parody shows confidence in the brand and gives people a feeling that we’re having fun in what we’re doing,” said Leo Bottary, VP of Peer Influence at Vistage.
In a hypercompetitive marketplace, getting consumers to do a double take about your brand can go a long way.
“Parody can be very effective,” Bottary said, “when even for a second, consumers can look at the communications and say, ‘Is this real?’ It’s very unexpected.”
3 Tips for Using Parody
▶ Focus on pain. Begin the concept development process by focusing on your customers and their top pain points. Not only does that direct the irreverence away from your brand, but it allows your [comedy video] to connect emotionally and create empathy with your audience. Ask the sales force and customer service team to provide verbatim gripes from customers; not about your product, but about the problems that your product can solve. If you can’t reach your sales rep to find a complaint, go to Yelp.
▶ Brainstorm absurdity. Write down the top three peeves. Then consider scenarios and/or environments that represent the exact opposite, which will lead you to an ironic situation. For example, if the customer complaint is, “Wait-time is too long,’” explore which buyer persona would be impacted the most, exaggerating the circumstances to the absurd degree, e.g. a NASCAR driver waiting during a pit stop. Then, flip it, and consider buyers who would be least impacted by a long wait-time, such as vampires.
Once you have created an absurd situation, let the characters play it straight. This creates a comedic tone that is clever and witty, both of which have a strong correlation to intelligence. For example, if the client is an eyewear retailer that promises to have your glasses ready in 60 minutes, build a scene around the impact of waiting longer than an hour at a competitor’s store. We could see a diva vampire pouting in the waiting room, glaring at his watch. “I can’t wait for an eternity.”
Build the jokes off of the truths we know about vampires, and the consequences he would encounter in that situation: the customer sitting next to him, eating from a Sbarro bag offering him garlic bread. Or, we see the Count’s concern about possibly having to wait all night for his specs and leaving the mall after dawn. The scene could end with a bat flying out of the store and crashing into a window display.
▶ Everyone’s not a comedian. The reason so many corporate attempts at humor fail is because companies rely on approved vendors instead of hiring experts. Bring in professional comedy writers, producers and editors. Ask your agency to help you find a team. Many improv theaters such as Second City in Chicago, Magnet Theater in NYC and The Groundlings in L.A. have writers who freelance on the late-night comedy shows and also know how to write for the corporate sector. Scout them out.
This sidebar was written by Tim Washer, senior marketing manager of social media at Cisco Systems Inc. and former writer for Conan O’Brien and “Late Night With David Letterman.” He can be reached at email@example.com
This article originally appeared in the January 26, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.