In praise of cartoons

Robertson was commissioned by Marlborough Partners for its annual calendar

It’s time more companies realised that cartoons are a great way to build their brands, draw in audiences and stand out from the crowd, writes Sophy Buckley.

Humour is both a shield and a weapon. Used in the right way it has the ability to change the most intractable viewpoint. This has been recognised by businesses in sectors as diverse as pharmaceutical, banking software, debt management and high-street DIY.

With their ability to get a meaningful message across rapidly, cartoons are providing a new outlet for marketing. And companies in all of the above industries have been using them to imbue their content with meaning and comicality.

As audience attention spans continue to shrink, corporate communications need to adapt if they are to thrive. Great content in the right place at the right time will get read, but it might take up five valuable minutes. A cartoon can put over a sympathetic message in just five seconds – and for that reason alone should be included more in the armoury of corporate comms.

Comic timing

Not only do cartoons demand a fraction of the viewer’s time, but they can also be more memorable than an 800-word article. Importantly, a humorous picture is more likely to be cut out and stuck on a fridge door or shared on social media, giving it longevity. In Britain, in particular, anything self-deprecatingly funny seems to enhance a reputation – we like those who can laugh at themselves.

Humour is often used in advertising to consumers – and British advertising is well known for it. It’s seen as a sophisticated way of selling stuff. The same can be said for B2B content. Cartoons can bring levity to a dry topic, add space to a dense white paper or be part of a reputational campaign to position a company in a certain way.

Says Nick Schon, a freelance cartoonist: “Very few things are life or death, and chocolate certainly isn’t one of them. There’s room for levity in most situations and the Brits in particular like those who don’t take themselves too seriously. Getting it right can have a huge impact.”

Just imagine if PwC had used humour as part of its damage limitation following the Oscars fiasco. It would have owned the moment: “It’s been a vintage 12 months for cock-ups, but the award for the best in 2017 goes to… PwC”. Instead, it was left to others to poke fun while the London-based global consultancy talked about internal investigations and tightening up procedures. Yawn.

As an example, Schon explains what happened when he was asked by a cocktail company to illustrate a piece about outside glass garnishes – a trend that started out as theatre and quickly became ridiculous.

Lambo cartoon

Nick Schon was commissioned to produce this piece by a cocktail company to illustrate outside-glass garnishes

“There was a trend for garnishing beyond the glass. It might have been a video in the bar or how the cocktail was mixed. It was getting more and more extreme, so I drew a waiter returning to the bar with the caption: ‘Whoever ordered the flaming Lamborghini, your garnish is in the car park’,” he says.

Fear of offence

But with humour comes fear of giving offence. In 2015, at Ad Week Europe, the comedian Jimmy Carr, who used to work in advertising, admitted in a conversation with Ogilvy Group UK vice chairman Rory Sutherland that while comedians have a lot more freedom to push the boundaries of humour than a company might, he believed in the power of humour to build relationships and give brands a bit of personality in an anodyne world. He said: “A joke is the shortest distance between two people. It makes the world a friendlier place. The intent of all jokes is the same… I want you to like me.”

While humour is encouraged in consumer comms, it is still fairly rare in B2B. In a recent paper published in Fortune, Judy Begehr, senior vice president account planning at gyro:Cincinnati, says companies are concerned by humour’s subjectivity, its potential risks, problems aligning it with the brand or because it’s seen as inappropriate. But she claims her own research suggests that about half of all B2B decision-makers think humour should be used more often, that it makes brands seem more approachable, relatable and innovative; while 76 per cent said humour was best for raising brand awareness. https://www.gyro.com/b2b-humor/

Certainly the opportunities for cartoons are manifest. Schon’s work has been used in white papers, to illustrate articles, on websites, for greetings cards and as standalone gags and calendars. But for them to work well, he says, a good brief and a trustful relationship with the client are paramount.

“The brief is key. Think of Blaise Pascal’s apology for not having time to write a short letter so writing a long one instead. For any creative process, the clearer the end goal the better the outcome, and that will take time and thought,” he says.

Royston Robertson, who uses the cheekily-named ProCreate program to create cartoons on an iPad, says it’s critical to know what the client has in mind, their boundaries and to understand their business. “The longer you work together, the better understanding there is on both sides. This will make the work better, too,” he says.

Starting points

It is common for a cartoonist to be given an article to illustrate. For both Robertson and Schon, this is a great way in.

“I’ll read it, try to look at it with different filters and maybe do some association things. Juxtapose something not normally associated with the topic or perhaps change the tone of voice. This usually throws up something interesting and I take it from there,” says Schon.

There might be a bit of back and forth as the idea is refined, but when an article is the vehicle it is usually pretty straightforward.

An area growing in popularity is live cartooning at events. Sometimes called ‘sketch notes’, ‘scribing’ or the unwieldy and humourless ‘graphic visualisation’, this involves building a picture of a session at a conference, for example. Robertson recently did a series for Pfizer.

Robertson Pfizer cartoon

Royston Robertson undertook this work for Pfizer

“They go down really well with the delegates,” he says. “I draw what’s being talked about and at the end of the day they are exhibited. Often they get framed and are up on display for the final drinks reception and then sent after the event as a take-away. They become a talking point and live longer than a written highlight summary.”

In this way the cartoon is more like a diary piece or a political sketch. “The feedback is instant and very good. The delegates always take photos,” he adds.

The downside of this is that you probably had to be at the event to get anything out of it. Context is everything, so it’s important to get the right cartoon for the right environment. For example, something that works in UK tabloid the Sun might not work in the Wall Street Journal. Equally, an industry in-joke will go down better in a trade magazine than a business paper.

Converts

One of Robertson’s more interesting commissions was the annual calendar for Marlborough Partners (see main image), a debt management group. Each year the organisation uses a different artist to provide a cartoon for each month. It chose Robertson for 2017.

“Clients remember the calendar and like it. We always get lots of positive emails and calls about it and people anticipate and ask when the new one is coming out,” says Jess Atkins, office manager.

Another convert is Swiss banking software giant Temenos. The company helps banks get to grips with the fintech and digital revolutions to improve the services they offer customers. Recently for a customer brochure they commissioned the FT’s resident letters page cartoonist Banx to do a piece on the lighter side of fintech.

Global PR chief Kate Bolton said: “Cartoons work extremely well on social media. To take an ostensibly dry subject matter like bank IT and turn it into a gag that works with clients and customers is a massive skill. And it pays dividends in terms of cut-through.”

Robertson was similarly successful using cartoons to help Home Retail Group, owner of retailer Argos, communicate digital hygiene at work. The brief was clear and Robertson already had a good understanding of the subject.

This cartoon was commissioned by Home Retail Group

“They wanted strips on keeping data safe, online security and communications, and so on. As tech is such a big part of our lives there was lots of scope for humour. It soon became clear that the best solution would be a workplace strip, like Dilbert. Once I made that decision, the characters and scenarios almost wrote themselves,” he says. All the cartoons were approved without changes – something he finds rarely happens.

In this instance, humour was used to make an important but boring subject – good digital practice – more interesting.

For most companies trying to attract attention, be that from staff, customers, suppliers, partners or the public in general, humour has been proven to work yet remains a resource that is under used. Given its power, it’s time that changed.

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