This week I posted on Twitter about the universal marketability of Dan Levy in a cozy sweater. It seemed to resonate, as I suspected it might.
The meteoric boom of quirky Canadian sitcom to internationally-loved, Emmy-winning supernova has been covered extensively. But as the smoke clears from the series finale and the stars make the predictable move into brand deals, I reflected on how their unique brand of mass appeal goes beyond celebrity, tapping into something much more powerful that may hint at what consumers are craving in 2021.
The Risk Averse Power of Self-Awareness
The relationship between comedy and advertising has never been stronger. Nothing disarms and opens a mind quicker than laughter.
Cross-generational comedy is a goldmine, but in the chaotic digital era of “OK, Boomer” and jokes about millennials and their avocado toast, it's one that’s hard to achieve.
Schitt’s Creek revived the genre though unapologetic self-awareness delivered through victimless situational comedy.
The show doesn’t build its comedic appeal on insults, but rather every character embraces themselves so fully that when the city “kid” wears heels to a farm you don’t laugh out of cruelty, you laugh out of situational irony. It’s a show filled with moments where if you watched it back with the characters themselves, they’d probably laugh at the situation with you.
Self-awareness is an antidote to alienation.
Dan Levy brought this energy to the consumer world by lending his iconic Levy eyebrows to promote Visible’s unlimited brows-ing deal. Get it? Brows-ing. It’s like-- Anyway, if you've seen the show you'll feel a certain level of loveable familiarity to his comedic style:
Self-aware brands have been on the rise for years now, perhaps in part because it provides a risk-averse way to explore comedy. Volunteering yourself as the target of mockery defuses the power of potential “haters”.
The iconic example of this being Old Spice. Mocking the hyper-macho marketing of male products which they had participated in for decades could have been a disaster. Hypocrisy doesn’t go over well in the public eye. And yet, to make this transition, they didn’t tiptoe around their old school image at all. They owned it with quips like “If your grandfather hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t exist”. See what they did there? They spoke directly to their younger target audience and embraced their past all while depicting your granddad as a smooth talking, great smelling heartthrob. There’s no victim.
They turned their vulnerability into multi-generational appeal.
This year self-aware brands reached a new level, especially on Twitter. Watching it go down sometimes felt like this must be late stage brand authenticity. Like surely there is nowhere to go after Bagel Bites bares their soul to Ariana Grande, right?
So, what comes after self-awareness?
Bringing The Magic of Schitt's Creek Into Real Life
Schitt’s Creek offered us a glimpse into a world where fear and competition are replaced with optimism and growth.
Self-awareness without growth can be uncomfortable to watch, especially among North American audiences where ambition and success are so openly revered.
TIME published an article on the differences between The Office (USA) and The Office (UK) revealing (very broadly) that while “Brits are more comfortable with life’s losers. [...] Americans are brought up to believe they can be the next president of the United States”. With either audience, there’s an insistence on defining people as either “winners” or “losers”. Schitt's Creek offered an alternative.
In lieu of progressing the storyline using competition rooted in a fear of failure, they use personal growth built on self-acceptance. No character’s quirks or mistakes are ever labeled eternally “wrong”. There’s only room to grow, with celebrated uniqueness and the unlikely friendships that ensue.
Maybe it’s just my exhausted end-of-2020 brain talking but the thought of a world centered on internal growth instead of competition is blissful. The popularity of the show suggests I’m not alone.
This effect has been labelled “comfort-watching” (a term popularized during the 2020 US Election), but I’d argue it’s actually akin to “psychological safety”.
Psychological safety loosely refers to being comfortable making mistakes, being genuinely inclusive and ultimately achieving better outcomes because of it.
While it’s usually applied in the context of team development, we know that consumers reward brands that reflect their values and evoke a sense of what’s possible. If self-awareness creates mass appeal, growth creates depth.
As we enter 2021, how can brands tap into the sense of psychological safety that consumers crave?
Well, it certainly helps to partner with the face of a show packed with it. Extra points if you wrap him up in a cozy holiday sweater as he rattles off hilariously relatable situations while supporting a children’s charity. But unfortunately, McDonalds and Uber Eats have beaten you to it.
So, how else can you do it?
1. Extend the olive branch
Probably not the way David did in Season 4, but more like Burger King in November as they called on customers to order from McDonalds and other competing restaurants in service of supporting the food service industry during COVID-19 lockdowns. While this is, of course, partly marketing theatrics it still sends a clear message that this brand knows that there are things bigger than it.
2. Conscious optimism
Painting a utopic picture that erases the world’s realities can hurt consumer trust and more importantly, harm and appropriate serious social issues (as Pepsi x Kendell Jenner learned). Schitt’s Creek drew its own criticism over the utopic depiction of small town life. Dan Levy (who's openly gay) addressed this saying “there's power in the projection of something nice, particularly for gay characters. We've come to expect any time we fall in love on camera [for it] to end in tragedy [..], to never be given happiness completely”. He used the show to create a positive alternative for the queer community, written by a member of the community. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) and brand activism is an extensive topic, but the simple truth is that as brands, we're always impacting culture and therefore social issues as well. As individuals in the industry, we have a responsibility to be aware of conscious and subconscious messages we send with our work.
3. Build in Public
Twitter maven Matt Kobach (@mkobach) has been a vocal advocate for building in public, but he certainly hasn't been the only one. On a recent episode of our podcast, he spoke about the power of launching "too early" and perhaps more importantly, the necessity of building extensive goodwill before then. The goodwill he and his team have built at Fast stems from the extreme transparency leading up to their launch. It was because of this that when their launch faced a series of bugs, it wasn't really a scandal. It was just another step in the process in which their dedicated following was eager to help them solve.
Sure, start-ups are a specific type of beast, but regardless of what type of organization you are, it's human nature to crave authenticity and trust far more than it is to expect perfection. As a brand, transcending professional norms and emphasizing human nature is a concept worth considering.