It’s funny because it’s true: using laughter to find new brand stories

 “It’s funny because it’s true: using laughter to find new brand stories”

The benefits of a good laugh go beyond the mooted health gains; laughter also holds the power to help people ‘open up’, making it an effective qualitative research tool that allows us to delve beneath rational and cognitive responses to access authentic motivational drivers for consumer behaviour.

Many approaches to uncovering these elusive, subliminal drivers – in particular enabling and projective techniques – still require participants to rationalise their responses in some way. Exploring new ways of unleashing instinctive responses unhampered by any form of conscious or rational filter has led Firefly, the qualitative practice of Kantar Millward Brown, to join forces with Second City Works to develop the Consumer Theatre approach; using the power of improvisational comedy to unearth big ideas and unlock brands’ true potential.

Improvisation has been used in the world of entertainment for many years…think of jazz, think of dance, think of comedy and theatre…these art forms represent creativity in its purest form and we have been working with Second City Works to translate this thinking to the world of Consumer Insights.

We believe that fresh ideas are the life blood of great marketing, and Consumer Theatre is essentially about finding new ways of bringing creativity into qualitative research, and as a result, bringing real value to the world of marketing and consumer insights. There are many potential roles for Consumer Theatre from determining Brand Purpose and Brand Strategy to the stimulation of creative ideas and identification of authentic consumer language.

A Consumer Theatre workshop is a highly engaging experience that brings together a brand team and a facilitator with groups of target consumers and specialist improv performers, who act out a number of scenes relating to specific aspects of issues relevant to the brand. The process is co-creative and highly interactive – think Whose Line is it Anyway, with the performers using consumers’ responses to guide the sketches.

The technique works by stimulating laughter from research participants, focused through the creative influence of improvisational comedy. Triggering laughter in a ‘safe’ environment helps participants to fully immerse themselves in the experience, connecting emotionally with each other and the topic. The process removes inhibitors and encourages people to freely disclose instinctive thoughts and gut feelings that are unfettered by self-censorship, uncovering breakthrough ideas much quicker than traditional methodologies.

Stimulated by the actors, the consumers provide fast, authentic and often visceral responses to what they see and hear, enabling us as researchers to probe deeper without the associated trappings of traditional qualitative research.

In particular, the Consumer Theatre approach creates a platform on which stories – which are at the heart of both comedy and branding – can be displayed, experimented with and built on. The atmosphere the actors create is highly stimulating and emotive, encouraging people to respond in emotional ways. Laughter signals when the improv has hit on something that truly resonates, but what we really need to then understand is what it is about them and their lives that created the empathy from which this response came. Rather than questioning them, we ask them to tell us stories about their own lives prompted by the improvisation that they have just seen. We find they do this in an unadulterated manner, using heartfelt language and highly personal characterisations. Conducting this process over a period of a couple of hours enables researchers to build rapport between improv performers and participants and explore areas in increasing depth and focus.

The ‘theatre’ is immediately followed by a workshop – we call this the Spark Session - during which the brand team and facilitator explore where the understanding gained could take the brand, and identify new stories that can be fed into campaign development, for example, to create strong connections with target audiences.  This session rapidly delivers holistic results and next steps because actions are built around the real-time use of a multidisciplinary team with all agendas addressed concurrently.

In today’s environment, the Holy Grail for many brand marketers is to be able to connect to their target audience in a meaningful way; this both drives sales and builds long-term brand equity. By discovering what is really important to people, we can help brands build strategy and communications in a way that has the consumer at the heart of the brand proposition. As an example, in a recent Consumer Theatre event on the intersection of personal privacy and targeted communications, we discovered that people are now more worried about cyber-attack than physical assault, and that many feel powerless against an invisible intrusion over which they have no control.  This has many potential implications for brands’ digital communications strategies and implementation.

In summary, presenting qualitative research participants with overly-contrived questions and dry stimulus will frequently fail to evoke expressive reactions or lead to a new understanding about who they are or how they relate to the subject matter. Creating a scenario where a group of people are laughing together, and sharing what they really think and feel about themselves and the world they interact with, has great potential for drawing out fresh and meaningful insight to drive the growth of brands.


Written by Steve Hales and Stephanie Rowley, (Firefly Kantar Millward Brown) and Michele Giles (General Mills)