There’s always a place for humour – even during a crisis, writes Shagorika Heryani, Head of Strategy at Grey MENA and judge for the 2020 WARC Prize for MENA Strategy. This year’s winning work shows how to use it to win a strategic advantage.

What’s funny about a global pandemic? One that has triggered a worldwide health, economic and political crisis, ultimately altering the very fabric of our existence; in its course irrevocably changing the fundamentals of what we know and value, down to our existential need for human and social interaction?

There’s nothing funny about it.

However, every day across our devices, along with the deluge of bad news, we also get this:

“Never in my life would I have imagined my hands consuming more alcohol than my mouth.”

“When you realise your normal lifestyle is called quarantine.”

“So, in retrospect, in 2015, not a single person got the answer right to ‘Where do you see yourself five years from now’.”

In historically unfunny times, humour always saves the day. It is our individual and collective coping mechanism. As trivial and inessential as it may seem, we are biologically programmed to find the humour in a situation. On the one hand it’s the perfect distraction and on the other, it’s the perfect way to express yourself and connect with others. Making something appear less serious than it really is gives us back control of our emotions or at least the illusion of control, which reduces stress, promotes happiness and so on.

Research firm System1 did a deep dive to understand what resonates during these unpredictable times and found that creativity based on self-awareness, generosity, human connection, spontaneity and humour does indeed break through.

In 1905, Sigmund Freud wrote a book called ‘Der Witz Und Seine Beziehung Zum Unbewussten’, which translated into English means: ‘Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious’. In the book, Freud alludes to the fact that jokes, similarly to dreams, are a release valve for forbidden feelings. “They must bring forth something that is concealed or hidden,” Freud wrote. The things we repress the most are likely to be the ones that make us laugh loudest. Which is why Freud claims that you can tell a lot about society from its humour.

Before coronavirus, in 2019 and earlier, humour was still the antidote to a world grappling with uncertainty, vitriol, divisiveness and growing inequalities. Smart brands have always understood the relationship between humour and humanity. Whether it is Ramadan, Superbowl or Christmas ads, or your average ‘Insta’ story, companies know that, stripped off all the jargon, we buy from brands and people we like. Humour is the fastest way to get to likeability and authenticity.

Brands that get it right are catapulted into the holy grail of marketing, which is, shaping the zeitgeist and being a part of pop-cultural vocabulary, aka sitting at the cool kids’ table.

As we judged this year’s entries to the WARC Prize for MENA Strategy, there were some striking examples of brands that used humour in clever ways following some well-established principles. Intuitively, as marketers and consumers, we know these principles, but can often negate them for the tactile quick win.

Be consistent

The difference between telling a joke and being perceived as a person with a sense of humour is consistency. And, like people, brands must develop a distinctive style of humour over a period of time, just like Burger King. The best Burger King commercials have an evocative tone of voice, cheeky humour and offer unflinching social commentary. And its two winning campaigns offer the Burger King brand sauce in dollops.

The first one, Burjer Kinj, is based on a cultural and linguistic insight. There’s no one way to pronounce the word ‘burger’ or ‘whopper’ in Arabic, as the language lacks the ‘G’ and ‘P’ sounds. The brand used this linguistic disadvantage to its advantage and kicked off the debate with a single tweet, followed by a campaign demonstrating both its trademark humour and a deep understanding of Arab consumers and language.

The second campaign, Who said men don’t cry?, used humour to launch Burger King’s all-new spicy menu, designed to make grown men cry. It did this by addressing a deeply patriarchal truth in the Arab world about men and tears and, through a light touch, normalised it.

Act with purpose

Brands with purpose are de rigueur now, but often when brands come down heavily on a social or cultural tension, they are met with tremendous backlash because they lack ‘the right to play’. Humour is a great way to lend a light touch to what’s often a generation-defining issue.

Jawwy, the Saudi telco, is the archetypical David in a sea of Goliaths and it exists for a simple yet profound purpose – to make life fairer. Rather than taking a more expected route and speak about equality and fairness, especially in the context of a tech brand, Jawwy used humour. It created The Fair Factory: a content platform that turned each feature of Jawwy’s service into an irreverent, engaging and entertaining piece of content.

Be rooted

Humour humanises a brand, grounds it in a truth that’s relatable and makes you smile. Often, technology brands don’t offer that slice-of-life insight and instead lean into more awe-inspiring storytelling. However, for Egyptian telco Etisalat Misr, humour became a winning strategy which transformed its hybrid segment offering – the Hekaya.

It tapped into the unique insight that families weren’t talking to each other because everyone except dad had a pre-paid line, so talking to your family literally cost you money. While offering a new product that allowed family members to talk for free, Etisalat Misr used a famous comedian to exaggerate and show consumers current behaviour.

As Victor Borge, the famous Danish-American comedian said, “Humour is something that thrives between man’s aspirations and his limitations. There’s more logic in humour than in anything else, because you see, humour is truth.”

An abridged version of this article appears in the 2020 MENA Strategy Report.