Rushed into social media oblivion by the over-development of our short-term frontal lobe, this year's April Fools' pranks—Virgin’s glass-bottom plane, Google Nose, Sony’s technology for pets—are already all but forgotten.
Just as Halloween is the one day a year when we can show up at our neighbor’s door without fear of getting shot by a Second Amendment fundamentalist, April 1st has increasing become irresistible permission for corporations to become, well, less corporate. Each year, we're seeing an arms race of irreverence and elaborate pranksterism that does its best to defy Eliot’s pronouncement about April’s cruelty.
Interestingly, the untapped creative brio that we see on April 1st isn’t limited to just the big brands. A friend of mine sent me a press release and video from Neolane—a B2B company not exactly big on Comedy Central—which was a noble effort for a company with a high wonk index:
"Marketing technology provider Neolane today launched NeoBlaster, a monologue mass marketing solution that empowers brands to dominate their customers by unleashing a relentless barrage of generic marketing messages."
What's most revealing about the creativity of this unfettered day is that it demonstrates an otherwise repressed ability of businesses to get in touch with their inner whimsy and humanity. Suddenly but temporarily, the strictures of an official voice, of messaging bludgeoned into inoffensive mush by the corporate communication enforcers, are relaxed. And an entirely new side of companies and brands is displayed.
So why is this disarming and appealing side of business kept under corporate lock and key for 364 days of the year? Because it’s fun when it’s limited, but it’s perceived as risky when it’s unleashed.
Now mind you, I’m not saying that the trick-ya apparatus of April Fools' Day should be extended literally; that, of course, would become implacably tiresome. But the witty and self-deprecating qualities that we see exhibited should be central to the communication ethos of most brands.
I say "most" because I'm not sure we want our chemotherapy drug manufacturers to be charming us with David Sedaris-like witticisms. (Although Marissa Acocella Marchetto—who wrote Cancer Vixen—and others have created a new genre that gleefully injects humor into the public act of coping.)
There’s little doubt that virtually all brands would benefit, to degrees small and epic, from an IV April Fools' drip into their messaging streams. In fact, the ability of a brand to surprise and delight, to pull the rug out from under expectation, is increasingly essential in today's world of daily, relentless social communication.
But this isn’t an easy role for a brand to play, by any means. Just like you don’t want to hang around someone who’s constantly cracking jokes, introducing himself with a hand buzzer, and sporting a squirting flower, we don’t want the brands in our lives to be relentlessly jocular.
So where’s the fine line? Where’s the substance and shtick demilitarized zone? It’s not complicated. In this era of brand anthropomorphism, the most meaningful relationships we can have are with brands who exhibit the best, most sensitive qualities of gloriously sentient people.
Brands need to know when to be joyful, when to be melancholy and saddened, when to be pissed, when to be inspired. This is a magisterially difficult role for a brand to play, given that its voice is controlled by so many different corporate puppeteers who have no real training, or feel for, the role.
Consider all the Edgar Bergens who speak for a brand. There’s the head of public relations, who is typically trained in the high art of risk averse behavior, and who communicates in a clinical voice of lifeless formality and inoffensiveness. There’s the social media tyro, whose idea of brand personality is to say "Today is Wednesday. What’s your favorite way to get over the mid-week hump?" There’s the customer service rep, who sticks to a cloying, faux-caring script as tightly as Kim Kardashian’s outfits.
Any one company, at different times, can sound like 10 different ones, in a confusing, schizoid cacophony. Big companies and brands are struggling to construct an internal structure that can harmonize and modulate these dueling voices, cohering them into a personality. For these purposes, I know of no better definition of personality than Fitzgerald’s "an unbroken string of successful gestures." But what we’re seeing, for the most part, is an unholy amalgam of flawed movements.
Speaking with an identifiable voice on Facebook, on Twitter, in a press release, a TV commercial, or an annual report might be the single biggest challenge of the modern 24/7 branding era. Keep in mind that identifiable doesn’t mean unchanging; subject, emotional register, context—these all can and must shift. Even the April Fools' joke that’s right for one brand is wrong for another. We wouldn’t expect iconoclastic Virgin and the reverent Four Seasons to attempt to trick us in the same way.
But we do expect the kind of humanity, self-deprecation, and lack of pretension that we’ve come to expect on April Fools' Day. It’s easy enough for everyone from social media directors to MBAs and software engineers to create elaborate jokes.
The morning of April 2nd is where the real challenge for brands resides.
[Business Rubber Chicken: Dani Simmonds via Shutterstock]