SXSW: Mister Face CD on What Makes Web Content Stick

Some trends last just one news cycle. Others span weeks or months before fizzling out of the zeitgeist and into the pile of almost-forgotten artifacts alongside pet rocks, Pogs and Gangnam Style. It’s difficult to wager on what will gain popularity and harder still to place bets on the web, where what’s trending changes by the moment.

As the creative director of Mister Face New York, Tony Mennuto taps into pop culture to create ads for the likes of Coke, P&G and Comedy Central. At SXSW, he’s making a presentation called “Why we STILL love honey badger” about what makes ideas viral. Marketing spoke with him about trends, web culture and how the fear of bombing on stage as a comedian informs his approach to advertising.

Let’s start with the Honey Badger. How did this voice dub video become such a popular, long standing meme?
Badgers are the funniest animals in the history of animals. They are so funny that the video would even be hilarious without a voice overdub. We like to share funny things. People would much rather retell a funny story than a sad one. Normal people.

If you want to get comedio-scientific, it’s funny because 1) we love to parody old norms and the Honey Badger parodies the quiet sanctimony of a nature documentary, 2) we expect one thing and get another. We expect to hear a British documentary announcer and we get this totally unexpected character, and 3) what he says is so ridiculous. Sometimes just being weird and unexpected is funny.

In 2011, Wonderful Pistachios featured the Honey Badger in a TV ad. It also featured Keyboard Cat and Annoying Orange in the campaign. Was tapping into web culture a smart strategy for the brand?
Yes. The consumer thinking process probably goes like this: “The people who make these nuts seem to know what I like at this moment. I bet they also know what kind of nuts I like. I BET THEY REALLY KNOW WHAT KIND OF NUTS I LIKE!”

Some memes are popular for a few days. Others last weeks or even years. What makes something stick on the web?
I think the memes that stick around for a while are the ones that are simple to understand and easy to share. But luck and timing must be at play. It is fascinating to think about why some things in our culture become enduring and some not. Like a painting that becomes famous. The work has significant meaning to the culture at the right moment in time in a simple and profound way. Soooo… The Honey Badger = Picasso.

How is featuring a meme or internet star in an ad campaign different from using a celebrity spokesperson?
If a brand is going to feature an iCeleb, they need to demonstrate that they understand why the iCeleb is relevant. It’s not enough just to name-check the meme. That just says that you have a computer hooked up to the internet. It’s the equivalent of wearing the band’s t-shirt to the concert.

Traditional ad campaigns take a long time to produce and require a lot of approval. Is there a danger in looking passe if a trend you utilize in your marketing dies down by the time you go to market?
Don’t put yourself in that position. Today, there are many tools you can use to deliver a brand’s message. Perhaps you do a really cool TV commercial that lives for a year, but save your “trendy messaging” for a social campaign. We just did that for our Domain.Me client. We made a hilarious video that will never feel old and a Twitter contest designed to last 2 weeks.

Most marketers realize there is no secret formula for “going viral.” That said, what are some ways brands can improve their chances at picking up traction?
Offer people free haircuts? You can have the funniest piece of content in the world, but if no one knows about it, it doesn’t count. I would recommend being as creative with your distribution and support of the content as you would with the content itself. We created a campaign for Fiat that was built around the best storytellers in the country. It featured people talking about really cool things like the first time they went skydiving, or ran with the bulls, etc. The videos lived on YouTube, but users were driven there by a ton of other media designed to pique their curiosity, including innovative 2-minute radio spots, short pre-roll videos and a Twitter campaign. The result was over 59,000 hours of video consumed in 12 weeks.

You’re also a comedian who has performed on Conan and Spin City. How does comedy inform your approach to advertising?
I think there is little difference between advertising and performing comedy. In both, you are desperately trying to get people to listen to what you are saying. There are few things worse than dying on stage. That fear motivates you to find ways to engage your audience. It’s a good skill for advertisers to have.

Both will also make you want to drink heavily.

Irreverent ads make sense for companies like Coke and Comedy Central, but should all marketing be funny? How do you approach more conservative clients?
Hey, it’s not all jokes and LOLCats around here. Behind any campaign there’s a lot of smart thinking that goes on. Finding a solid strategy, understanding the marketplace, etc., all of that dictates the execution. We think funny is better because it touches people in an emotional way and is sharable and memorable, but smart non-funny works too.

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