June 3, 2016

Don’t Eat Paint: How to Use Humor in Brand Storytelling

This article was originally posted June 2016 and updated January 2022.

paint brushes and paints laying on a canvas, showcasing reds and yellows with green and blue paint coming out of tubes in background
Photo by @anko_

Humor. It’s one of the most effective and yet, underutilized, tools in the storytelling toolbox. Too many brands shy away from humor because if you take the joke too far, or marginalize a group, or lack self-awareness, it can be worse than falling flat. It can damage your brand. See here for some worst-case scenarios. Take notes, students of storytelling. There will be a test later.

Despite all this negativity, don’t skip the funnies! This blog will share an example of best practices in using humor authentically from and others. Ace Hardware and others.

Examples of Humor in Advertising: Ace Hardware

The campaign from the hilarious advertising folks at O’Keefe Reinhard & Paul demonstrates why brands should embrace humor.

It raises the bar in authentic storytelling. The campaign for Ace puts the spotlight in the same place it’s really always been: on the employees, on their service, and on their customers.

The ad team doesn’t completely reinvent the wheel; they just put 20-inch chrome rims on it. The jingle that we know and love is simply adapted with a humorous touch.

Why Humor in Advertising Works: It’s Empathy-Driven

The video campaign is just so personal. It includes a :30 or :15 second encapsulation of one of your last trips to the hardware store.

You can immediately see yourself in the store, facing a similar conundrum. And Jeff Gooding, Senior Director of Marketing and Advertising at Ace, told Scenic Road that was the goal.

 “The vision behind our new ad campaign was to bring to life the helpful, personal service customers find at Ace Hardware, by featuring real Ace associates in real Ace stores solving real problems of real neighbors.  By leveraging the familiar tune of our ‘Ace is the place’ jingle, we are able to authentically communicate to consumers in an “Ace-ownable’ way that Ace has exactly what they need to complete their home maintenance projects, from the best brands to our helpful associates,” says Gooding. 

In other words, by seeing others who are as confused by home projects, gadgets and tools as we are, it enables and encourages us to bring all questions to Ace and not feel judged for our lack of ability or home improvement know-how.

This approach really humanizes the brand by sharing microcosm-moments of our lives. Who hasn’t experienced an unenthusiastic, bordering on comatose, teenager?

Or been overwhelmed trying to pick a paint color? (It’s like the Rubiks cube. I don’t believe this is a problem I can solve alone. I painted my entire bathroom four times. FOUR times!)

Ultimately, if you don’t laugh at any of them, you just may be made of plastic.

So far, this campaign has 130,000 hits on YouTube, but more important, it’s reaching consumers and increasing brand affinity by differentiating their brand from competitors in an authentic way.

Using Humor When Your Competitors Aren’t

Ace Hardware isn’t the only brand that understands humor can reach people when other approaches won’t.

Wyffels is a family-owned company that sells seed corn. They understand that their audience has a low tolerance for being sold to, since farmers fend off sales pitches daily.

They also understand that others in the agriculture space rarely use humor to communicate, so this approach sets them apart. 

Each of the videos in this series has very low video production hoopla. There are no bells. No whistles. They just rely on simplicity and the potential to offer a good laugh.

That’s part of their appeal: growers respect a brand that doesn’t need  glittery disco-ball messaging to reach them. They just need a concise, down to earth-yet-funny message. 

Ready to tackle humor for your brand?  Check out some more great examples from Wyffels Hybrids’ TV Spots on YouTube, Kim Spier on Hubspot,  and learn about the pros and cons from Tim Ray in this article on the Huffington Post.

My last words of advice: When you bring your side-splitting idea to the table, be prepared to face the Committee of No that is your Red Tape Division. Be strong. Have a titanium will. Because in the long run, if done right, that laughter will melt hearts and mold minds. All for your brand. Storytelling accomplished.

Have you tried to use humor for your brand and it backfired? Or did you hit a grand slam? Share your story with me through email, or drop us a message on any of our social accounts and I might share it on the blog.