Funny is as funny does: Steve Mudd on humorising your B2B brand

Do you know how to be funny? Does funny even exist in B2B? In his session at Ignite USA, NetApp’s head of content marketing Steve Mudd discusses their rebranding, the (un)funny world of B2B and what you can do about it. Lucy Gillman reports.

NetApp’s transformation

NetApp specialises in data storage for companies like Dreamworks who use a lot of data. As more and more companies turned to cloud providers like AWS to store their data, NetApp began working with those cloud providers to bring their storage acumen to the cloud. “Our rebranding exercise was to shift the brand from a hardware company to a cloud company, taking all that history and innovation we had in the data centre with us,” Steve states. 

The core challenge? “How do you change 30 years of history, attitude, brand to try and be more engaging, modern and cloud-like?”

“NetApp wanted to zig while everyone else zagged”

Working with agency Mother of London, NetApp set out their brand transformation - creating a new brand platform, turning their blue logo to black (“that caused a lot of havoc because people like their blue logo,” Steve quips) and going “from a serious company to a funny one.”

“The marketing playbook is basically unchanged for so many different companies. We wanted to reinvent ourselves. With the new branding we got to have personality and bring humour in,” Steve continues. NetApp sought to reinvent the typical B2B assets to tell their story in a more ‘cheeky,’ interesting way. Content’s job? To make that brand flow.

“In my session I’m going to talk about some of the challenges in doing that: how do you convince people that funny is okay? How do you get people to write or think funny?,” he adds. “It’s not an easy thing or something that most people can do - being funny is somewhat difficult.” (editor’s note: Steve has clearly not read any recent B2B Marketing material).

So, how did NetApp do it?

Throwing the events playbook out the window

NetApp challenged the a-typical tech company formula of executive talk + keynote speaker + guest speaker for out of the box events.

NetApp Insight 2021 was ‘basically a big television show.’ They shortened long keynotes to programmes, such as Anthony Lye and Ronen Schwartz’s The Perfect Blend - a faux wine show where blending wine became a metaphor for migrating apps to the cloud. 

As Steve puts it, host Whitney Cummings isn’t “someone you’d normally choose for a tech conference. She’s out there [and] we got some push back from our old, traditional audiences. And she wasn’t even going full Whitney!”

But the results speak for themselves. “We deal with audiences that are immune to marketing. People like software developers and coders who are bombarded with marketing - they can smell it from ten miles away and will ignore it at all cost,” Steve continues. “We have to do something to get their attention in a way that’s different from traditional marketing. Content can help you become cool enough to get invited to the right parties.”

Steve Mudd at NetApp Insight 2021

Bring different voices into the mix

But it doesn’t stop there. By Steve’s own admission, “there are a lot of old white men who work in tech today, but our audience is growing more diverse every day.” NetApp has brought the question of diversity in content to the forefront, working to showcase leaders from diverse backgrounds in videos and events. They even go so far as to track the screen time of speakers—“what gets measured gets changed and our leaders are more aware of showcasing underrepresented groups than ever before.”

And varied voices creates varied content - “we’ve infused more personality to create more interest around what we do with the end goal of making sure that the content’s engaging, interesting and fun! Especially in this pandemic world where everyone is sitting at home constantly bombarded with content.”

Business to boring: B2B isn’t getting humour right

For Steve, B2B falls behind her funnier B2C cousin. As he puts it, “very few companies have gone far enough to invigorate their brands and make them more compelling.”

See B2C insurance companies Geico whose ads star the Geico Gecko à la Compare the Meerkat or Progressive’s dead pan, tongue in cheek work. “They made insurance fun and engaging! Nobody’s done a good job of this in B2B,” Steve continues. “The whole industry is run by engineers driven by logic. We’ve taken steps in that direction, but we’re only scratching the surface of possible by creating emotional connections through humour.” 

In this way, the funny brick road is more difficult in B2B than B2C - “if you’re going to do something different, you have to have a greater level of courage. You have to stand up and fight for ideas.” 

One small step for humour starts with clarity. For Steve, B2B has mastered the art of saying nothing in as many words as possible. “You’ll find the same text on banner ads across the board. It’s the same jargon of ‘accelerate your digital transformation’ and ‘innovate faster’. What do these things even mean?,” he continues. 

His advice is clear: set aside the buzzword bingo. Funny begins with being straightforward with your audience. “I’ll talk about this in the presentation, but for us it’s a question of building up trust over time,” he continues. “Funny rarely happens overnight.”

Why Ignite USA?

“What we’ve found is that people have been so beaten down in the past that they’re not willing to try new things,” Steve states. “My session is about encouraging people to take a step away from what they’ve done.” At Ignite, Steve will explore:

  • How to convince leadership it’s okay to be funny.
  • How not to give up in the face of criticism.
  • How to get serious about diversity, inclusion and belonging.
  • How to create funny content.

“The lineup of speakers looks awesome,” Steve continues. “I’m excited to see Lisa Gilbert [who’ll be speaking about the power of brand in the era of the Great Resignation] - she’s terrific.”

“I’m looking forward to being in-person in Chicago and being in a room with other marketers,” he adds. And, perhaps most importantly, “seeing how tall everyone really is.”

So, are you serious about transforming your brand?

Attend Ignite USA, America’s leading B2B conference on all things brand 1-3 June, virtually and in-person, in Chicago. You'll earn the tools needed to translate and deploy your brand into top tier marketing messages and campaigns and win those buyers!

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