Stand-up comedy as branded content: How to get it right

Hamsini Shivakumar, Founder, Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, writes that stand-up comedy as branded content can only succeed when it is based on the fundamentals of what branded content is supposed to be — a way for brands to participate in culture

Hamsini Shivakumar
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Stand-up comedy first found its way into Indian branded communication in 2011. Tata Docomo had featured actor Ranbir Kapoor to deliver 30-second bits about the common faults found with cell phone plans. A direct mention of the brand was only made in the closing frame, and the appeal was built through association with the youthful actor who could effortlessly deliver the problem statements written up as jokes.

The telecom brand eventually vanished. But the idea stuck with a welcome tweak — the bits would now be delivered by actual comedians. 

In 2015, lingerie brand Clovia brought on Neeti Palta to comment on topics like the awkward service experience" target="_blank" rel="noopener"> traditional lingerie shops. In 2017, instant credit app LazyPay called upon a comedic coterie comprising personalities such as actor and VJ Cyrus Sahukar, improv artist and comedian Kaneez Surka and scriptwriter Biswapati Sarkar to highlight different examples of painful online transactions. In 2018, GodrejHIT featured Deepika Mhatre, a maid cum stand-up comedian, in a bit" target="_blank" rel="noopener"> ‘Every maid during Diwali’. And during these last couple of months, lingerie brand Zivame has come together with comedians Aishwarya Mohanraj and Prashasti Singh to discuss the social implications of visible bra outlines and cheap petticoats, respectively. 

While this listing is not exhaustive, it does show how this trend of branded communication has progressed over the years. Brands may not have milked it (like they have done with something like influencer marketing) but they continue to utilise it consistently, at least ever since 2015. What about the approach appeals?

The appeal of stand-up comedy for brand communication 

Everyday problems can be highlighted with a light touch and evoke laughter rather than tears.

Advertising typically magnifies minor irritants and frames them as life-altering problems that the brand can rescue you from. Like this ad from Acnestar with a bio that says, “New Dresses and hairdos are fantastic but don't let your old acne-ridden skin ruin your fresher's party plans!” Can acne really ‘ruin’ a social gathering for you?

Brands may think that dramatic exaggeration and hyperbole is the best way to make an impact through a 30-second TV spot. But it makes the on-screen representation of everyday problems feel inauthentic.  Also, the brand appears as if it is trying too hard to gain importance in your life. 

In contrast, the stand-up driven approach acknowledges that solving these hiccups will not magically bring your life back on track. So, it illustrates how the problem can hassle you in small yet multiple ways, and thus, merits resolution for a better-quality life. That the brand is providing you with a way to achieve that resolution forms a small part of the communication. 

This realistic and authentic articulation of everyday problems resonates even more with millennials and Gen Z, who have grown up with a surfeit of products and huge exposure to advertising.  They see the staged melodrama of advertising for what it is and don’t warm up to its unreality.

The wrong way of creating stand-up as branded content

It sounds like the ideal way to subtly highlight a brand/product without following the format of a product sell. Yet brands often seem unable to implement the formula without making it about the moment of consumption or shoehorning the brand into a stand-up comedy routine. In other words, they are unable to accept that branded content is not another way to create an ad. 

So, many of them end up creating a hybrid that features a real-life comedian who promotes the product instead of entertaining the viewers like any other piece of stand-up comedy would. The jokes are only focussed on consumption and usage situations, like a typical ad. They reflect the seller’s agenda and highlight problems and inconveniences that the product can address. 

Consider this communication from OneAssist, a brand that offers consumer-focussed membership programmes:

It features Rahul Subramanian dressed as a washing machine as he voices its woes through jokes similar to a bit from a stand-up comedy routine. But the jokes are all focussed on a mismanaged consumption experience. Whether it is about heaving the machine up the stairs despite having access to a functional lift or investing in a washing machine without accounting for the sporadic water supply. None of the material touches upon the wider social and cultural ideas surrounding the problem. 

Also consider the video from GodrejHit, highlighted at the beginning of this piece:

‘Every maid during Diwali’ starts off exactly like a regular stand-up routine. Deepika critiques her employer for being cheap about buying vegetables when she owns jewellery worth a lakh. She shares how the Diwali bonus never compensates for the extra work she has to do, including ridding the place of cockroaches. 

Two minutes into the video with similar anecdotes and Deepika suddenly begins talking about where cockroaches can be found, the harm they bring and how the ‘Laal Hit’ can help. What was only meant to be a subtle talking point for the brand is turned into a full-fledged promotion for the remaining duration. 

The right way of creating stand-up as branded content

While the balance between engagement and brand presence can be tough to maintain with stand-up-driven branded content, there are those who have nailed the concept. 

There is the aforementioned 2020-21 campaign by Zivame that underlines the troubles that badly designed innerwear can create. 

The more popular of their two videos, the routine by Aishwarya Mohanraj discusses feeling conscious about bra outlines, and feeling judged when the material sits up and draws attention under close-fitted clothes. Like a regular routine, it also relies on humour through deviation rather than only sticking to a script that directly serves the brand’s purpose. 

It is an ideal example of stand-up as branded content. Because, like regular stand-up, it largely relies on introspective anecdotes to highlight the irregularities we gloss over because of how normal they have seemed till now. It evokes laughter at the illogical ways in which we approach life and the consequences that arise from it. And it critiques our ways of going about things in order to nudge us to do better. 

Despite being created around the brand’s choice of theme, the focus of the routine is not the brand or the product. The focus is a broad understanding of the problem that the brand promises to solve. This almost singular focus on consumers' experience makes the marketing effort feels like it is primarily about representing the consumer's day-to-day experiences.  The brand presence in the frame is very visible, yet it comes across as a brand that truly ‘gets’ consumer issues; is a deep and empathetic listener.

Key Takeaway – Getting it right

Stand-up comedy as branded content can only succeed when it is based on the fundamentals of what branded content is supposed to be – a way for brands to participate in culture. When brands juxtapose selling with such content, it immediately lowers its appeal and creates a hybrid that doesn't bring in the kind of success promised by either format, advertising or content.

It is a tough challenge and a tricky balancing act to pull off.  And that explains why stand-up as branded content still hasn't caught on in a big way, even while brands frequently use comedians to enact storylines in their communication.

(The author, Hamsini Shivakumar is a semiotician, brand strategy consultant and the founder of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting. In her weekly column for BuzzInContent, she and her team analyse interesting content pieces done by brands in terms of their cultural leverage and effectiveness of brand integration. According to her, the content has a symbiotic relationship to popular culture; it helps to form culture and draws from it. It works as part of a simultaneous and virtuous cycle of mutual reinforcement.)

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