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Humor Can Be Your Best Targeted Marketing Strategy

Illustration of crying tomato sitting on bus bench next to an onion

Humor Can Be Your Best Targeted Marketing Strategy


If the saying holds true that the shortest distance between two people is laughter, then it’s likely that the marketer who fearlessly goes for the jocular stands a better chance of disarming today’s increasingly knowledgeable and sophisticated consumers.

Case in point: outdoor apparel company New Moosejaw LLC (dba Moosejaw).

Since its 1992 inception, Michigan-based Moosejaw has built a loyal following by folding its customers into its outrageous marketing efforts, leveraging the company’s mail order catalog, website and branded blog — all in the name of advancing a cockeyed marketing vision executives call “The Madness.”

Warped and insistently nonsensical, The Madness is niche gone wild, a sort of grand inside joke between the Moosejaw staff and its customers (one is tempted to say “accomplices”). Under the guidance of marketing SVP Eoin Comerford, CEO Harvey S. Kanter, founder Robert Wolfe and creative director Gary Wohlfeill, Moosejaw routinely dreams up promotional stunts that sound less like marketing ploys than counter-intelligence missions (“Robot Dog,” “Naked Jet”).

In recent years the company has poised itself as a romantic intermediary, using its blog to introduce initiatives like “Dating Girl” (customers e-mailed for dating advice), and “The Moosejaw Break-Up Service” (where Moosejaw customer service reps break the news on behalf of disenchanted lovers). Last November the Moosejaw website featured a play about the company’s free two-day shipping offer (“We open on the Moosejaw Marketing Gang discussing how to best execute another promotion that no one will understand …”).

Veritably soaking in silliness, The Madness permeates nearly every facet of Moosejaw’s marketing, with often-hilarious results. But Moosejaw surprised even itself when an idea offhandedly tossed out at a marketing klatch mushroomed into a customer phenomenon.

When Moosejaw customers received the company’s Spring Break 2010 catalog, they discovered a peculiar request at the bottom of page 16: “E-mail a rendering of a crying tomato.”

Weeks later, the company upped the ante in its summer catalog, telling readers, “We’re trying to get 10,352 crying tomatoes, so please e-mail your crying tomato pics.” For their trouble, customers would receive 100 Moosejaw Rewards points (which equates to about $1) redeemable for gear and apparel.

Within weeks, Moosejaw’s head-scratching call to action had resulted in dozens of impressionistic customer illustrations. The response was so encouraging that Moosejaw decided to feature some of their favorite crying tomato submissions in an e-mail blast to 300,000 customers.

“I think we had more than 300 total submissions,” Comerford estimates. “That might not sound like a lot, but people had to actually do something. It’s one thing to get someone just to reply to an e-mail, but when they have to actually go away and create something, it’s a different story.”

Using humor as a direct marketing differentiator

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be any method to Moosejaw’s “madness,” but a closer inspection reveals that the company’s marketing strategy is bone-simple — create funny, soft-sell initiatives that appeal to plain, old-fashioned human vanity.

Moosejaw doesn’t just market to the customers. It markets the customers themselves. And while many of the company’s stunts have nothing to do with sales or outdoor gear, they do have plenty to do with cultivating feel-good vibes that often translate into customer loyalty.

“In a competitive environment, you need a differentiator,” Comerford says. “Some people have set their differentiation to be customer service, where others center their authenticity around being the technical experts. Our differentiation is this engagement in the madness and the fun.”

Comerford adds that many customers have come to eagerly expect off-the-wall messaging: “They enjoy that they get a package from us with a note inside that says ‘sealed with a kiss’ that’s written by the person who packed it. It’s that unexpected fun part that is going to create that level of engagement, so the next time they go looking for a climbing harness or a winter jacket, they’ll think of us.”

Humorous campaigns boost customer loyalty and brand awareness

Though Moosejaw’s run-amok marketing style may seem novel to the business world, it’s really a contemporary take on a time-honored American fantasy. Like the fast-living rockers of the 1970s, the financial mavericks of the ’80s and the online pioneers of the ’90s, Moosejaw gives the impression that it’s making serious bank by pushing the limits. That’s an appealing message for just about anyone — but especially for Moosejaw’s 20- to 40-year-old core demographic.

“Our mantra is that we want to be the most fun outdoor retailer on the planet,” Comerford explains. “By being fun ourselves, we create that level of engagement, that madness you get from climbing up a cliff face — only you get that in an online/retail environment.”

Moosejaw leverages that heady sense of fun in its digest-sized quarterly catalog. And considering its penchant for marketing hijinks, it was no surprise last February when it asked readers to send their best illustrations of crying tomatoes.

“We typically get a certain response to these, but we started to get hundreds of pictures from this one sentence written in 8-point font in our catalog,” Comerford says.

Recognizing a marketing opportunity, Moosejaw promoted the Crying Tomatoes theme across all of its branded marketing channels, including the company’s summer catalog and blog. To help promote their new branded T-shirts, Moosejaw sent an e-mail blast to its 300,000 opt-in customers. “Submit a pic of a crying tomato and we’ll post it in our dentist’s waiting room, or wherever it’s appropriate,” the e-mail said in typically mystifying Moosejaw fashion. Mention of the initiative also was made to Moosejaw’s 28,000 Facebook followers.

“If you look at our catalogs, Moosejaw uses the tagline ‘Loving the Madness,’” Comerford points out. “We try to make sure that on every page there is some degree of madness, something that’s notable or engaging that will make the customer want to flip the pages and read. Sometimes it will be sayings, or just silly observations on life, the products or what have you. Other times like this, it will be asking the customer to engage.”

Moosejaw’s own research shows that stunts like Crying Tomatoes have resulted in customer loyalty and boosted revenue. According to a recent study conducted by the company, 40 percent of Moosejaw customers who consider themselves to be “highly engaged” have placed at least four orders with the company.

Though the Moosejaw creative crew dreamed up the Crying Tomatoes idea on the fly, the ploy illustrates the potential rewards of acting on spontaneous ideas. “We learned that if you come up with something that tweaks people’s interest and is not self-serving, people will respond and engage with you,” Comerford says. “If you try too hard and do something more self-serving, you’re probably going to miss the mark.”

Yet for all the company’s renegade spirit, perhaps the biggest lesson marketers can take away from Moosejaw is rather traditional and simple — be true to your brand.

“There are people over the years who have tried to emulate or do something similar to our voice,” Comerford says. “If it’s not real, people will know.”



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Tags: Be, Best, Can, Humor, Marketing, Strategy, Targeted, Your


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Comment by Aj Maida on March 7, 2011 at 9:33am
I love irreverence and try to use it as often as possible. One of the big things that I get out of this article weather it is humor or not is " the same The message across all mediums. To often we see one message on the website another on Facebook, another in the newspaper and yet another on the radio. If we are working so hard and spending so much $$ why are we then confusing the consumer? Just on an aside, since it says to use humor doesn't this mean that Joe Webb would be great at this??? ;-)
Comment by Keith Shetterly on March 5, 2011 at 4:22pm
Wonderful point, and our vertical market could use more humor . . . and I don't mean inflatable gorillas on top of the building, either!  :)

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